Electronic tablets and laptops will soon become prominent features at Palo Alto City Council meetings thanks to a decision by the council this week to make the leap from paper packets to digital files.
The council voted 5-2 Monday night, with Councilman Larry Klein and Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh dissenting, to make the switch from paper to digital and to give council members the option of having the city pay for their new iPads (or other electronic devices). Both Klein and Yeh said they supported the switch from paper to digital, but voted against the proposal because they felt it should be the responsibility of the each council member to buy his or her own electronic device.
The decision to make the switch followed a lengthy debate over whether it should be the city or the individual council members who should splurge for the new devices. Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd made the proposal to give each elected official the option of having the city purchase his or her device. This option, she said, would ensure that all council members and candidates would be able to afford the new device.
"Even though my personal choice would not be to take that option, primarily because I don't want to worry about whether I'm using it for too much personal stuff, I do want to keep that option available," Shepherd said.
Klein and Yeh both opposed creating this option -- both for legal and political reasons. State law bars council members from using city-funded resources for personal use. Klein, who supported having council members buy their own devices, said he did not want to create a temptation for council members to break this state prohibition.
He also argued, as he has in the past, that city-bought iPads would be more discoverable in potential litigation than those purchased for personal use. This could create privacy problem, he said, for council members whose iPads include information pertaining to their health, finances and other personal business.
Then there's the problem of perception. Klein said using city funds to pay for iPads for the council could be viewed as a new "perk" by the public and city workers, whose salaries have been frozen and whose benefits have been scaled back over the past two years so that the city could balance its budget. Yeh agreed.
"This will be regarded as a perk and it will be treated by some of our more aggressive or contentious union representatives as indication that the council is not being consistent in asking union members to make sacrifices while at the same time granting themselves an additional perk," Klein said.
Councilman Pat Burt joined Klein and Yeh in voting against Shepherd's amendment to give council members the option of having the city buy their new devices. Burt noted that council members who can't afford a new iPad could always opt for a cheaper digital device. Laptops, he said, could be bought for about $200 these days.
The amendment passed 4-3, with Mayor Sid Espinosa, Shepherd, Greg Schmid and Karen Holman voting in its favor and Greg Scharff and Gail Price absent. Burt then joined the four supporters of the amendment in voting for the switch from paper to digital packets.
Council members will retain the option of sticking with the paper packet if they so choose.
Even with the switch, paper reports will not become extinct at City Hall. The City Clerk's Office still plans to distribute paper reports at public libraries and make six copies available at City Hall. Radio station KZSU will also continue to receive paper packets. Overall, the number of paper packets will shrink from 22 to 11. The council, city staff, the City Clerk's office and Palo Alto Weekly will no longer receive paper reports.
The clerk's office estimated that with the switch, the city's costs to produce and deliver the packet would drop from $29,810 to $25,861 per year. The cost of printing would drop from about $23,000 to $13,945, but the city would spend about $4,548 per year to pay for the council's data plan if every council member chooses to make the switch, according to a report from the City Clerk.