The Cranston City Council is ready to tackle technology, after unanimously approving a plan Monday to purchase tablet or notebook computers for each council member, and outfitting council chambers with wireless Internet.
Council members will have the ability to choose whether they would prefer a tablet or laptop, at a cost ranging from $330 to $450 per person, and were asked to submit their requests to the city clerk by Wednesday, after the Herald deadline.
The expenditure will come either from the council's budget or from the city's overall IT budget. The exact figure will not be clear until requests are finalized through the clerk. Theoretically, the cost would range from $2,970 to $4,050, however several members indicated they already had personal computers and would not require the city to purchase one.
Ward 2 Councilman Don Botts believes the investment will pay for itself.
"I think we need some system that eliminates the reams of paper. I think the return on investment would be seen in the first couple of years," Botts said.
Botts, who works as a network manager and senior web developer, reviewed quotes on personal computer technologies along with the city's IT director and fellow Councilman Michael Farina. They provided those costs to the council this week. Because the cost is comparatively low in the scope of the city budget, the council will submit bid waivers for the technology, rather than going through the traditional RFP process.
Council President John Lanni, having previously served on the City Council for 10 years, agreed that the purchase would better serve the council in the long run. Agendas, ordinances, resolutions and other communication with council members would now be sent electronically only.
"In my 10 years on the City Council, I could have filled up a room with the amount of paper. It will pay for these things just in the savings we accumulate," he said.
Personally, Botts advised his colleagues that he is inclined to use an Apple iPad tablet, namely for its ease of maintenance and strength against viruses, as opposed to laptop counterparts.
"If I had my druthers, I would go with an iPad over a laptop, only because the maintenance on these is a lot less. We use Macs and iPads at my private business, and having an Apple store close by in case you have an issue is very convenient," he said.
Botts already owns an iPad, and therefore said he would not require a new tablet through the city. The same is true at least for council members Farina and Mario Aceto. Aceto said he was just pleased that the chambers would soon be outfitted with wireless Internet.
Despite concerns expressed by Councilman Botts, who would prefer to tap into the existing system, council would not be utilizing the existing Internet access in City Hall. The city's IT department has indicated that they do not have the time or resources to build necessary firewalls to protect city systems and documents.
"It's a third party system; it won't tax our IT system. We should be able to do this pretty self-sufficiently," Farina said.
Instead, the council would purchase a wireless router specifically for chambers, and pay a monthly fee. They agreed Monday to go through Cox Communications. The starting rate is $79.99 per month, but the city is hoping to get that cost reduced. Several council members said that a router was still preferable to individual wireless cards, which would incur monthly fees per user.
The WiFi in chambers would be password protected, preventing members of the general public to use it. That password would be shared with other city boards that meet in the chambers.
Initial reaction from the public has been critical. On the Herald Facebook and Twitter pages, readers have said the move is a waste of money.
"It smacks of an investment in convenience while necessities are neglected," wrote Michael Gardiner.
At the meeting, resident Suzanne Arena questioned whether electronic communication exchanged during those meetings would become part of the public record, or would be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. She fears that the investment, though well intentioned, could be an added distraction. She criticized elected officials at the council and school committee levels for already playing on their phones while the public is speaking, or generally appearing disinterested.
"I don't know how you can come to a meeting like this, listen to me, and text or take a phone call. It's, to me, rude. This is proper etiquette," she said.
City solicitor Pat Quinlan said he was unsure how electronic communication exchanged during a meeting would be impacted by Open Meetings law, and said he would research the issue.
School Committee member Janice Ruggieri joined the fray of critics, suggesting that for members who do not currently own this technology, the purchase should come from their stipends - not the city budget. George Nasser added that the computers should not leave City Hall.
As presented Monday, these tablets or notebooks could travel with the council members. When their term has expired, the technology would be turned in and later passed on to the incoming council.
In other action on Monday night, the council sent a resolution back to the Finance Committee that urges the General Assembly to pass a law granting the city authority to take income into consideration when making a determination on tax relief.
"Twenty communities in the state base their tax exemptions on income. There is a section of the law for each community and for us to do something like that, we would need to change state law so that we would have the power to set an income guideline. We are now specifically barred from doing that, according to the council's attorney," said Councilman Steve Stycos.
At the Finance Committee, he hopes to develop those income guidelines, whether they follow the federal poverty level, the city's tax freeze program requirements, the state median household income, or some other benchmark.