iPads help suburban governments go paperless, at a cost
Mundelein High School District 120 board members no longer wade through thick packets of memos, contracts and reports at their semimonthly meetings.
Instead, they finger-tap through electronic documents on sleek, lightweight Apple iPads.
Acquired this summer, the computer tablets have reduced the time staffers spend creating hard-copy packets and the fuel costs associated with the previously standard home delivery. They've also trimmed the district's paper usage and related costs.
"Board packets range from 60 to 125 pages," Superintendent Jody Ware said in an email. "(That's) over two reams of paper for board-packet preparation."
A few suburban boards have turned to iPads to go paperless over the past year. But the increased efficiency and stationery savings come at a price.
For starters, iPads aren't cheap, typically running $499 to $829 each through Apple or other retailers. Protective cases, add-on software, wireless service and other peripherals incur more costs.
There are potential legal and ethical issues for elected officials, too. Using a government-owned computer to send campaign-related emails or work on campaign matters violates state law, and that counts for iPads.
Additionally, websites accessed and messages sent and received using publicly funded iPads are open to public review.
"They should all be aware that those computers do belong to the taxpayers and can be inspected at any time," said David Morrison, deputy director of a watchdog group called the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
Boards go digital
Apple introduced the iPad in 2010 and its successor, the iPad 2, this spring. The tablet can do virtually anything a traditional laptop or desktop computer can do, but in a smaller, wireless package.
Since its launch, a smattering of public boards across the nation have adopted the iPad -- far and away the best-selling tablet computers on the market -- for use at meetings. Agencies typically promote the acquisitions as paperless strategies designed to save taxpayers money.
In the Chicago area, relatively few suburban government boards use iPads at meetings.
In addition to Mundelein High, panels that have made the digital leap include the Aptakisic-Tripp Elementary District 102 board in Buffalo Grove and the village boards in Hanover Park and Carpentersville. This week, Wheeling officials announced the village board, plan commission, mayor and clerk will get iPads, too.
Laptops are more commonly found in local boardrooms, but generally paper still rules when it comes to suburban board meetings.
Mundelein High School District officials have bought 44 iPads for board members, administrators, other staffers and students to use. A mix of original iPad and iPad 2 models, they were $499 each, Ware said, but grants helped cover the costs.
Two Mundelein High board members don't use the school's iPads, Ware said. One has his own, and another prefers paper packets.
The five board members who accepted iPads have them at all times.
The biggest advantage the iPads offer, Ware said, is mobility.
"We are able to take them into meetings and into classrooms for teacher evaluations (and we) have access to our district email and files 24/7," she said. "We cannot do this with our desktop PCs."
Carpentersville trustees voted last month to buy iPad 2 tablets for the mayor, the village clerk and themselves. The eight iPads and protective covers cost $4,200, said Kevin Goethals, the town's information technology director.
"The village felt that by changing the process of how board members view the board packets, we should provide the equipment necessary to do so," Goethals said in an email.
The expense will be offset by the money the village will save on paper, staff time preparing packets and photocopier maintenance, Goethals said. That could be more than $5,000 a year after the first year, he said.
Village hall has Wi-Fi service, and software is in place there to prevent access to pornographic websites, Goethals said. Elsewhere, however, trustee iPad use will not be limited or monitored, he said.
Elected officials should be mature enough to use the iPads properly and not for viewing pornography, sending campaign-related emails or performing other illegal or improper electronic acts, the Illinois Campaign's Morrison said.
Politicians also should avoid using iPads or other digital devices to email each other during meetings in ways that could subvert public gatherings, he said.
Emails, chat-room postings or other electronic conversations are subject to the Illinois Open Meetings Act, the law ensuring government business is handled in public, and the Freedom of Information Act, which allows people to request and review government documents.
"They should have no expectation of getting away with that kind of charade," Morrison said.
That's the case in Hanover Park, where elected officials and department heads have had 18 iPads at their disposal since August, thanks to a $10,854 village purchase. Mayor Rod Craig said he will call out trustees who commit "any indiscretion" with the machines.
As for administrators, "we expect no violations from senior staff," Craig said in an email.
User abuse isn't a concern for officials in Reading, Pa., where the seven city council members and other officials began using iPads for meetings earlier this year.
The tablets are distributed at the start of each meeting and collected immediately afterward.
The procedure has more to do with safeguarding costly technology than preventing illegal or improper usage, City Clerk Linda Kelleher said.
"They're city property," Kelleher said. "If we give an iPad to an individual councilor, then we end up with a problem if they resign and don't give them back."
Officials in Yuba City, Calif., took a different route when they went paperless this year.
City council members and other leaders bought their own iPads instead of charging taxpayers thousands of dollars for the tablets.
"The concern expressed by some of the citizens was that it was a matter of economics," Mayor John Dukes explained in an email. "Local government revenues were declining and the city had implemented a hiring freeze and pay cuts. (We felt) purchasing new equipment that was not dedicated to public safety should be put on hold."
Four of the five city council members and nine top administrators -- including the city manager, police chief and fire chief -- bought tablets. One council member opted to stay with paper packets.
Purchasing the machines individually "served as a good compromise between being proactive by embracing modern technology and green business practices and also being fiscally conservative," Dukes said.
No free apps
Here in the suburbs, the Aptakisic-Tripp Elementary District 102 board members and administrators who have been assigned iPads since fall 2010 are free to bring them home.
The volunteer board members aren't required to provide their own tools to perform their elected duties, so the district was responsible for buying the tablets, Superintendent Theresa Dunkin said.
Additionally, making the board members turn in the iPads after meetings wouldn't allow them to review digital documents ahead of sessions, Durkin said.
"(It) would defeat the purpose," she said.
District leaders don't monitor or filter off-campus iPad use, said Tom Donovan, District 102's chief technology officer. But existing board policies governing staff and trustee conduct applies to tablet use, he said.
As for the iPad's add-on programs, or "apps," District 102 board members can't download Lady Gaga's latest hit song or the newest version of "Angry Birds" and stick taxpayers with the bill.
Schools have different software purchasing procedures than civilians, Donovan said, so District 102's iPad users must use their own accounts with iTunes -- Apple's online software store -- to purchase music, movies or games.
"This isn't an issue for us," Donovan said.
The Illinois Campaign's Morrison doesn't object to school or village boards spending taxpayer money to buy themselves iPads.
"It's a recognition of the effort they put into the job," he said.
Morrison believes paperless meetings create an opening for greater public involvement in government. He recalled attending a meeting in which audience members with smart phones, laptops or tablets could use the social network service Twitter to send questions to a central computer that would project the inquiries on a screen for all to see.
But Morrison also remembered what happened when state lawmakers were issued laptops for use at their desks in the House and Senate chambers.
Forgetting that their backs -- and therefore their computer screens -- were to the public gallery, some legislators were caught playing computer solitaire, surfing the Web or running other programs instead of paying attention to the discussions of the day.
Two state legislators in Connecticut drew criticism after a photograph of their unprofessional computer activity surfaced in 2009.
"The lesson for officials is that this is not a toy, this is part of your job," Morrison said. "And when you're on the job, you should be working."