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Elected officials look to embrace technology

2/28/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Efforts being made locally to make government paperless

Summit County Councilman Bill Roemer (R-at large) looks on as Council Assistant Jennifer Novakovic tests out an application to access the week’s agenda on an iPad.
Summit County Council members will soon be using iPads to view their weekly agenda and related documents, as shown above right, joining other local governments that are turning to tablets to save paper.
Photos: Kathleen Folkerth
GREATER AKRON — With their constituents increasingly turning to electronic devices to communicate and retrieve information, some local elected officials are trying to do the same.

In Bath, trustees recently began using iPads to access legislation, while Summit County Council is preparing to do the same in the next week. And an Akron City Council committee is seeking ways to bring updated technology to its members, all in an effort to become more “paperless.”

Bath trustees debuted their new tablets at their Feb. 19 meeting.

“Bath Township has invested in iPads to reduce the amount of paperwork generated for each of our Board of Trustees’ meetings,” Deputy Administrator Vito Sinopoli said. “Our trustees have been very proactive in implementing this new technology and familiarizing themselves with its use. They have become extremely proficient with the functionality of the iPad and view it as a tool, not simply a consumer product.”

Sinopoli estimates that 300 copies were typically made for a meeting, so the change will help the township save money on printing costs and paper.  

County Council hopes to also realize savings through its use of iPads.

“I estimate I get several feet of paper a year,” said Council member Bill Roemer (R-at large), of Richfield. “When you multiply that by 11 Council members plus copies for the press and staff, we generate a huge amount of paper.”

In addition to the cost of paper, there are costs to run and maintain copiers, as well as staff time to prepare and assemble the printed documents.

Mark Potter, County Council’s chief of staff, said iPads were recently purchased for Council members and plans called for getting them set up this week so that members can begin trying them out at Council’s March 4 meeting.

“For the first couple of meetings, we will have agendas on both paper and iPads as a transitional thing,” Potter said.

He added the iPads cost $6,700 total, which was paid out of last year’s budget. He added that County Council spends about $3,000 a year on paper and toner for printing.

“We should recoup some of that,” Potter said. “Where we really will recoup money is with time. We’ll be spending less time printing that stuff and organizing the folders. If it’s a busy Monday, that can take a few hours.”

Potter said County Council members will use an application called Box that they learned about from Twinsburg officials.

“It’s really simple,” he said. “They will just click on a meeting agenda and it will pop up. If they want to go back and look at a piece of legislation, it will have all the pieces and all the supplemental stuff.”

Sinopoli said Bath is using an application called DropBox.

Akron City Council also hopes to work toward using less paper through technology, according to Rick Schmahl, the city’s new chief information officer. Late in 2012, Council established a technology committee to work with Schmahl.

“They want to go as paperless as possible,” Schmahl said. “Each council member gets a copy of all proposed legislation and everything else on the agenda, and it can be a substantial stack of paper.”

Schmahl said from what he’s been able to determine so far, most Akron City Council members are computer savvy.

“If you have a laptop or tablet device, a pdf document is a pdf document,” he said. “We’re not asking them to compose a spreadsheet. If the general public is able to use a Kindle to read a book, our City Council members can have an electronic device [to read legislation].”

Schmahl said promoting the use of technology for City Council members is not new, as in the past the city issued laptops to each member.

During Council’s recent retreat, Schmahl said he spoke with members about what their options are, and the consensus was that the city should expand its use of a document management system already in place.

“I’m trying to consolidate everything citywide on a single document system, so, for instance, if the Law Department wants to share files with police,” Schmahl said. “It’s just a matter of purchasing more licenses and getting more capacity. It seems like a logical move to expand with something we already have in place.”

For ideas on how other large cities are implementing technology, Akron officials have looked to the city of Columbus, Schmahl said.

Locally, Summit County’s communities are a hodge-podge of differing levels of technology, said Roemer, who as an at-large Councilman has attended meetings throughout the Akron area.

“I went with Council staff to Hudson and Twinsburg,” he said. “Those two communities are definitely more tech savvy than we are right now.”

Roemer said he’d also like to see County Council’s meetings streamed live online, as Hudson does. He noted that that city uses a sophisticated online system that allows constituents to type in a key word, and the video will go to the part of the meeting where the issue is being discussed.

Both Schmahl and Roemer said they believe elected officials need to embrace today’s technology to help them serve their constituents better.

“If there’s a piece of legislation that affects a ward and a resident can’t come to a meeting, they can see the legislation and whatever is going on in the ward on the Internet instead of coming down to City Council,” Schmahl said.

“The first thing is cost savings for the county,” Roemer said. “And I think the constituents ought to have access to all the documents I have.”

Editor’s note: See next week’s West Side Leader for a look at the status of what other local governments are doing to embrace technology for elected officials.

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