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posted: 10/11/2011 5:00 AM

Safeguards needed for government tablets use

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Daily Herald Editorial Board

It's easy to be impressed with the iPad and other tablet computers. Sleek, portable, lightweight technology at your fingertips. What's not to like?

Just as they are embraced for business and personal use, it's no surprise some local governments are similarly smitten -- so much so they have spent taxpayer money to buy and outfit elected officials with the devices.

Is that a problem? Our short answer is a qualified no. We recognize some potential cost savings and efficiencies various governing bodies have identified that could offset the purchase price of the devices for years to come. If true, the technology is a wise purchase.

Our longer answer adds a caution: Strict guidelines must govern their use and ensure potential legal and ethical issues are addressed upfront. Mechanisms must be put in place to document use of the devices and allow for inspections when requested. And, board members must understand and embrace those guidelines.

In a story last week, Daily Herald Staff Writer Russell Lissau reported that a small, but growing number of local governments have bought iPads for use by elected officials. Mundelein High School District 120, Aptakisic-Tripp Elementary District 102 in Buffalo Grove and the villages of Carpentersville, Hanover Park and Wheeling have taken the plunge.

Agencies typically promote the acquisitions as paperless strategies designed to save taxpayers money. Carpentersville, for example, says its $4,200 iPad expense will be offset by the money saved on paper, staff time preparing packets and photocopier maintenance. Officials expect that could amount to $5,000 a year after the first year.

Such savings would be impressive.

However, the times being what they are -- many struggling suburbanites can only dream of having an iPad -- spending taxpayer dollars on this device comes with heightened responsibility to use it properly and maximize its efficiency.

"They should all be aware that those computers do belong to the taxpayers and can be inspected at any time," David Morrison, deputy director of a watchdog group called the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, told Lissau.

As is the case with other government-owned computers, that means officials can't use iPads to send campaign-related emails or work on campaign matters, view pornography or perform other illegal or improper acts. Board members shouldn't use them to email each other during meetings, a violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

Should those iPads be outfitted with personal "apps," Lady Gaga's latest hit or the newest version of "Angry Birds?" Certainly not. These tablets aren't toys. They are tools paid for by taxpayers to reduce costs and boost efficiency. Restricted to such use, they can be valuable tools for improving efficiency and containing costs.