GREENFIELD — When Mayor Dick Pasco suggested the purchase of iPads for members of the Greenfield Board of Works, it was part of a trend for government boards that are increasingly using laptop computers to make their work virtually “paperless.”
But Pasco is taking the effort up a notch: He says the computers will not only cut down on loads of paper and ink from city copiers, but they will help the city become more transparent to the public.
The connection is clear in Pasco’s mind. More documents will be put on the city’s website, he says, for the general public and the board members alike to view.
But there’s also a double-edged sword with technology. Board members could use them to hold virtual chats instead of speaking up in a public meeting, for example.
While city officials acknowledge the ability to misuse the computers, they say safeguards will be in place to make sure the iPads are used properly.
Board of Works members received their iPads Tuesday after approving the $2,300 purchase earlier this month. The six computers went to each board member, except for Pasco, who already had one. The city’s attorney and clerk-treasurer’s office also received one.
Meeting times, agendas and minutes have for years been posted to the city’s website. Now, additional documents the board views during its meetings will also be posted online.
The board approves contracts and bids for city infrastructure projects, and also deals with personnel issues. Each of the five members had been carrying to each meeting large stacks of paper relating to these issues.
Now, documents such as blueprints and proposals from companies will be put on the city’s website several days before each meeting. The board will have access to those documents and any documents permitted to be kept from public view by the Indiana Open Door Law. Those exceptions will be filed in a private application in the iPads.
Greenfield technology director Nick Riedman said with documents posted to the city’s website several days before each meeting, the public will be given equal opportunity with the works board to review items for discussion.
Eventually, more documents for public meetings could be posted online, he said.
“They’re (the board of works) kind of our guinea pig for this,” he said. “Once we get a good process down, we’re going to filter (the document posting process) out to the other boards as well.”
Pasco said he’s not sure whether more iPads will be purchased for other boards. The city council, for example, uses far less paper than the board of works.
“A lot of things we have is in color,” Pasco said. “It will take a while to recoup the costs of the iPads, but the transparency issue made it worth it.”
The city has been spending about $600 a year on printing paper for the board. Riedman said the manpower it took to put together all of the packets cost hundreds of dollars more.
Technology can be used to make government even more transparent, said Stephen Key, but government could also become more difficult to access with new gadgets.
Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, said phones or chat rooms can be used between board members to comment to each other privately during a board meeting. A member of the audience may speak on a controversial issue, for example, and two board members could be sharing sarcastic comments via technology.
“Those comments back and forth have a big impact,” Key said.
Presentations may also be made to a board using technology that may be difficult to access, Key said. If a PowerPoint presentation is made, for example, and a member of the audience wants a copy of it afterward, it could be more difficult to obtain it if the presenter doesn’t make it readily available.
Pasco said he would hope the iPads are used openly, and doubts that any of the current board members would use them unethically.
“If you can’t say it for people to hear, then you shouldn’t even say it,” Pasco said. “I hate chat rooms. I don’t even like texting, so it won’t be me. I’d rather say it.”
Riedman said applications for chatting are not installed on the iPads, and any purchase of applications must go through the city’s technology department.
Greenfield’s iPad purchase follows in the footsteps of several other public boards in Hancock County. The Greenfield-Central School Board also uses iPads, for example, and the Hancock County Commissioners and Eastern Hancock School Board are also issued laptops.
The Hancock County Public Library Board sets up the library’s laptops for each board meeting and projects information onto a large screen for the audience to view as the board is viewing it.
While other boards put agendas and minutes online, Greenfield is the only one so far that is putting supporting documents online for the public to see.
The HCPL puts board minutes on the library’s website, as well as bylaws. The board then uses a private website to view supporting documents, some of which deal with sensitive issues like personnel, which are not subject to the state’s public access laws.
“They’re able to access information with any computer with Internet access,” said Dave Gray, assistant director of the library.
County commissioners are e-mailed documents from department heads before each of their meetings. Auditor Robin Lowder said if people from the general public want to view something the commissioners have on their screens, they may ask for the information and it will be provided.
Randy Harris, Eastern Hancock superintendent, said computers were purchased for school board members around the same time every high school student received a computer for schoolwork and homework.
“I think we’ve still got a long way to go to improve,” Harris said, adding that the administration is still adjusting to the idea of going paperless.
He said there has been no talk yet of putting supporting documents online. The school puts agendas and minutes on its website.
Greenfield-Central’s school board has been using iPads since 2010. Technology director Greg Thompson wrote an app for the administration and board members to use to view documents.
“I don’t have any doubt we’re saving huge amounts of paper,” he said. “It’s great for us. We were putting a lot of wear and tear on our copy machines, and we killed a lot of trees.”
The school also provides paper copies of public documents to those who request them but has yet to take the leap of putting more public documents online.
Thompson said it’s something the board may consider, but it would also take more time to separate what is public information to put online vs. what can be withheld.
“We haven’t taken the packet online yet because the version the board sees is not part of open access laws,” he said. “We haven’t taken that next step yet.”
For Key, an expert on the state’s public access laws, it’s important to realize that technology can be used in two ways: to improve accessibility to the public, or to hinder it.
What’s done on public-owned computers, he says, should be able to be viewed by the public as long as it doesn’t fall into the exceptions of public access laws.
“If they’re doing it… on laptops that were provided to them by the city, then any records that are created become subject to the public access act,” Key said.