The switch to tablets

BELLWOOD – A handful of residents attending a July Antis Township supervisors’ board meeting expressed surprise at a 5-0 vote to spend $3,219 on five iPads.

Most said staff should have sought cheaper tablets, but some questioned the need for tablets altogether.

“I don’t want to sound stupid,” one resident began, but what does an iPad give a supervisor that they couldn’t get from their home computer?

The benefit is twofold, explained township Manager Lucas Martsolf: The township will save money on paper and toner, and more information will be available in one place.

“Often times there is an information gap,” Martsolf said, and not only between residents and supervisors.

Staff put in countless hours working to understand complex topics inside and out, and sometimes that information doesn’t translate into a mere sentence or two in a meeting packet for board members.

“[They] will have access to more information at their fingertips,” Martsolf said, including but not limited to past meeting minutes, Antis Township code, second-class township code, the five-year comprehensive plan and past budgets.

“And anything else I think they might need,” Martsolf added.

In the cloud

Supervisor Charles Taylor, who’s been bringing his own miniature tablet to meetings for months, said easy access and digital editing features allow him to insert notes or questions while he’s reading through the agenda and make any changes in real time.

It also helps that everything is in one place, and he’s not buried under a stack of paper, he said, which he demonstrated by rifling through his papers to show how easily one important document can become buried in the pile.

Township solicitor Patrick Fanelli, who also brings his iPad to supervisors’ board meetings, explained that at his practice, other lawyers can store documents and information in “the cloud,” which refers to a secure online space where data is stored and backed up.

If one person makes a necessary change or note, or adds their own document, everyone within the network will be able to see it later when they use their iPad.

It makes work easier and simpler, Fanelli said, and everyone stays up to speed.

Cost savings

Supervisor C.J. Caracciolo said when looking at the grand scheme of the township’s budget and resources, staff go through a lot of paper and toner and spend a lot of time preparing meeting packets.

He told the meeting attendees that he researched different tablet options while shopping for his own iPad and ensured them that reviews and ratings consistently show Apple as producing the best tablet for its cost. It may be more expensive, Caracciolo said, but it will be reliable, and the township will get the most life out of them.

Using his iPad at home the Friday before the supervisors’ Aug. 1 meeting, Caracciolo said he was able to look through the next meeting’s agenda.

Caracciolo said he can read through Martsolf’s report and zoom in when he needs to, whether to read small type or to get a better look at a map or photograph.

The multimedia capabilities also are endless, he said, and may allow supervisors to get a better look at things they might not otherwise be able to see, like progress at a construction site or repairs to a township road.

But the biggest thing for Caracciolo still, he said, is that the iPads, despite being expensive, will actually save taxpayer money.

Factoring in the cost of making one supervisor’s meeting packet and multiplying it by five, the number of supervisors, and 12, the number of monthly meetings per year, Martsolf said it would take 18 months for the iPads to pay for themselves in paper and toner savings.

That estimate doesn’t include planning commission or capital-improvement committee meetings, he said, whose members also will use the iPads.

Nor does it include special meetings, of which there are always a few.

By Caracciolo’s estimates, the iPads could pay for themselves in as little as a year.

Better policies

Purchasing the iPads, Martsolf said, is just the first step in a series of improvements he plans to make to utilize technology to put “as much information as possible” out in public view.

Right now, he said, the township pretty much does the minimum legally required of them.

They run meeting times in the newspaper’s legal notice section and provide basic information on the township’s website, run through a state program that aimed to connect municipalities with their citizenry.

But Martsolf said Antis can do better.

Right now, he’s working on next year’s budget, in which he hopes to set aside funds for a revamped township website, at a cost of between $4,000 and $10,000, so that anyone looking for information can find it.

If plans move forward, Martsolf said he hopes to start putting the kind of information that will be on supervisors’ iPads all meeting minutes, reports, budgets, codes and development plans onto the website next year.

There will be an added benefit of bringing to light any confusion over an ordinance or vague wording in a law, he said, and therefore creating “a higher probability of producing better policies and ordinances.”

In the end, he said he wants a more efficient, more transparent government and that Antis residents will be motivated to attend more meetings.

Hopefully, he said, it will be another step toward bridging the information gap.