Pittsfield City Councilors Go Digital

May 8, 2014

Credit wikipedia.org

Pittsfield city councilors are now using tablet computers to conduct their work, in an effort to go paperless.

City Clerk Linda Tyer first pitched the idea in 2010. Four years later, she was able to convince Mayor Dan Bianchi and other decision makers to fund the $6,000 initiative to get iPads in the hands of city councilors. A former city councilor herself, Tyer says the city spends more than $100 printing agendas and documents each council meeting.

“It’s an opportunity to be leaner, greener and more efficient in the work that we do here in the city clerk’s office  as it relates to the city council,” Tyer said. “They have 21 meetings a year, the meeting packets can be over 100 pages long and we were making 11 copies.”

Councilor John Krol started using his own iPad about three years ago. He says this move is long overdue.

“So I’ve refused to take the paper packets and instead use an iPad at the city council meetings,” Krol said. “But, we’ve got a long way to go to make city government, maybe not fully paperless, but there are a lot of trees being killed because of municipalities probably all over the state and all over the country.”

President Melissa Mazzeo has been on the council for five years.

“I have containers at home where I’ve saved every item on the agenda and my subcommittee papers,” Mazzeo said. “I’ve saved all of that. You may not go back and look at everything, but there are times when I’ve gone back to look at a few things.”

Stylus pens and keyboards allow councilors to mark PDF files using a software system that mimics hard copies. Mazzeo says even though she has used an iPad for personal use for years, there is a learning curve when it comes to digital note-taking and other tasks. She says it will take time for her and others to become comfortable with the electronic tablet.

“It’s more important to get the document and understand it than it is to jump to these iPads,” she said. “I want them [city councilors] to have both. I want them to comfortable. We’ve got budgets coming up. I’m going to have a hard copy of the budget. There’s no way I’m doing all of this budget on my iPad. There’s way too much to do.”

Tyer has held training sessions and plans to wean the councilors off paper during the next three or four meetings. The tablets give councilors easy access to the city code, charter and contact information while preventing them from downloading applications, music or movies, according to Tyer. She says the latter will help councilors separate personal matters from city business.

“If you’re using your home device for your city council work, that device is subject to the public records law,” said Tyer.”

Councilors can take the iPads with them and access the internet during meetings. Mazzeo says she has been concerned about mobile phones being a distraction in the past.

“They’ve had their cellphones on their desk and God only knows what they’re doing with their cellphones,” Mazzeo said. “I just hope that everybody is there doing the right thing.”

Krol doesn’t see the iPads creating a distraction.

"It gives you a great level of access to all kinds of information, but I would say that every counselor is very focused on the issue at hand,” said Krol.

Krol says the paperless effort could spread to other city departments.

“I still get mailed paper agendas for several subcommittees and the school committee,” said Krol.

Springfield city councilors were issued iPads in 2012. Meanwhile, New York State Assemblyman Jim Tedisco has been urging state government to reduce its paper trail for several years.

“For a number of years in this legislative body on both sides it’s been paper, paper everywhere but not a dollar saved,” said Tedisco to fellow lawmakers during a budget debate in March.

The Republican says the state legislature spends $13 million a year on paper printing and more than $40 million to haul the waste. Tedisco says voters can approve a ballot question in November that would have New York join states like Connecticut and New Jersey that have gone digital.

“When that happens, Mother Nature will be smiling,” Tedisco said. “A tear may come down from her eye, but she will be very happy.”