Debate persists as council eyes laptops

Some see them as the keyboards to happiness, but disagreement continues over the proposed purchase of three laptop computers for city council use.

The issue, set to be discussed at this week’s city council meeting, was pulled from the council agenda two weeks ago at the insistence of chair Michael Pollock and referred to the council’s finance committee.

Mayor Darlene Kordonowy dissented during her mayor’s report, believing the matter should be publicly debated.

“The laptops are not a big deal, even though there is a cost issue involved because the costs to purchase are minor compared to ongoing costs to maintain, upgrade and replace,” Kordonowy said in an interview. “But this is one of a number of changes involving the council that, taken together, should be debated in public and taken to the community.”

Other matters cited by the mayor include council requests for more city hall office space and dedicated staff, neither of which have been requested by previous councils.

Newly elected council member Deborah Vann made the initial request for a city-provided computer shortly after taking office in January, saying her home computer is too antiquated to handle the volume of documents that council service requires.

She withdrew the request at last week’s finance committee meeting, saying she did not want to make what appeared to be a special request. But committee chair Bill Knobloch said he also wanted a computer dedicated to city business, to improve efficiency.

The committee unanimously recommended that the council approve the purchase of three laptops.

Cost of buying and properly equipping three machines is estimated at $7,150. But an estimated 100 hours of staff time at $25 per hour, for maintenance and training would also be required. That would make a total first-year cost roughly $9,650.

Knobloch said last week that the three-computer request is not final.

“That was a very early estimate,” he said. “We will work on it to make sure that the council gets what we need.”

The laptop-purchase was contentious, he said, because some council members believed Kordonowy was stalling on the request, first made in January.

“We learned that a number of computers have been purchased for the staff during that time, and we asked why what appeared to be a double standard was being applied,” Knobloch said.

Kordonowy had a ready answer.

“The computers for the staff were in the budget,” she said. “Computers for the council were not.”

Kordonowy and city information technology specialist Amy Hughes have also raised concerns about the long-range costs involved, such as future requests for printers, network wiring and putting information into electronic form for computer users.

“These issues, depending on how council deals with them, can increase the cost of ownership of the laptops three or four times or more,” Hughes wrote in a memorandum on the request.

While computerizing information can potentially save paper, and therefore money, it also raises questions about how to continue providing public access to that information.

That is a difficult problem for city staff now, said Ralph Eells, city director of finance and administration, and is not made measurably greater by computers for city council.

“The legal requirements imposed on public employees have not changed with the technology, which is moving much faster than our ability to comply with the law,” he said. “That is a problem for government in general, and I suspect it will have to be solved on the federal and state level, not the city level.”

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