Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 30, 2013

Legal issue crumples effort to go paperless


TRAVERSE CITY — A recent effort by Grand Traverse County commissioners to eschew paper documents for paperless technology fizzled amid questions over its legality.

Commissioners tonight are expected to revisit a plan that would have boosted their pay by $850 if they agreed to give up hard copies of meeting documents in lieu of electronic devices.

Commissioners this month unanimously approved the stipends — intended to cover the costs of laptops, tablet devices, or printing meeting packets from home — during a committee meeting.

But state law forbids county commissioners from increasing their compensation in mid-term, a provision the board did not consider before voting on the stipends, Commission Chairman Herb Lemcool said.

"I don't know if anybody even asked that question," Lemcool said.

Items approved by committee members normally appear on the commission's monthly meeting consent calendar, when dozens of items are dispatched in a single vote without discussion. The technology stipend is listed under the board's unfinished business, and commissioners plan to discuss different ways to go paperless tonight.

"I think we are going back to the drawing board to figure out what can be done with this," Lemcool said.

County Administrator Dave Benda stopped short of calling the proposed stipend illegal, but he acknowledged there are better ways to go paperless than tacking technology funds directly to commissioners' paychecks.

Board members could purchase desired devices, then receive reimbursement from the county up to a designated amount based on receipts, Benda said.

The county also could buy a set of laptops or tablet devices for board members to use during their time in office. The county would own the devices, and commissioners would relinquish them when their terms end.

"I think that's a better way of doing it than just giving a cash allocation," Commissioner Larry Inman said.

Commission discussed adopting new technology over the past year. Many board members argued the move would promote green-friendly, tech-savvy and more efficient practices.

But county Finance Director Dean Bott questioned the value of such stipends last June in a memo to the board. The memo states the county spends about $416 preparing committee packets for commissioners each year based on calculations from 2010.

Bott's memo recommended holding off on technology reimbursements for board members based on, among other things, past decisions to save money by eliminating phone and fax line reimbursements for commissioners and IT staff time associated with adopting new technology.

Several commissioners argued embracing paperless technology will save the county long-term money not quantified in Bott's memo.

Savings associated with printing and mailing packets, and staff time spent compiling packets, will grow each year commissioners use tablets or laptops, devices that usually last for several years, Benda said.

Former Commissioner Rob Hentschel agreed. He used an iPad 2 purchased by the county as a pilot program during his tenure on the board.

Hentschel said the iPad saved the county from spending money on copying and mailing packets, and made him a more effective and efficient commissioner.

The iPad allowed Hentschel to easily sort through old meeting packets for relevant information, or to consultant board procedures and rules during board meetings. The county cannot put a price tag on such access to information, Hentschel said.

"If you have all that information in hand, there is a potential to make more effective decisions and there is really no way to measure that," he said. "I'm sure I saved the county money by using it."

Commissioner Christine Maxbauer said she receives roughly 20 meeting packets each month between commission meetings, commission committee meetings, and meetings for outside committees like the airport commission and the board of public works.

Maxbauer, a longtime board proponent of going paperless, now uses the iPad previously used by Hentschel.

"I have to tell you, it's pretty slick," Maxbauer said. "We should have done this a long time ago."