Sunday, November 7, 2010

Acting on Impulse

When making decisions, this council seems to follow one of two paths - topics are either discussed to death, with decisions being delayed and deferred for what can seem like forever, or else a suggestion is leaped upon as though it is a limited time offer that will solve multiple problems, and acted on immediately, without being thought through as to all of the possible consequences, or even evaluated as to whether the solution is appropriate to the issue. The first method is frustrating, because it can seem as though some members of council are afraid of making a decision in case it upsets somebody, so they would rather wobble on the fence indefinitely, asking for more reports and opinions. The second is probably more expensive, as the action taken usually has a cost, and can have impacts down the line that also have costs that could have been avoided if we had better discussion up front. Short cuts can be great, but they can also get you into trouble.

An example of the second kind of decision-making is the current thinking around moving to electronic, rather than paper, copies of meeting agendas and reports. Actually, it won't be moving from one to another, it will be doing both.

The initial impetus for this discussion came from concern about the amount of time it takes city staff to make and distribute multiple copies of the material required for each Council and Executive Meeting. Along with that, for some people, is the desire to reduce the amount of paper used. When it comes to staff time, I would point out that this is only an issue if it requires overtime - otherwise, they're being paid for doing this work, even if it is boring, and unless we plan on reducing staff levels, it shouldn't be an issue. As for the concern about using paper, my forester wife often reminds me that paper is a renewable resource, and messages such as "Save a tree - think before printing out this email" are misguided and not really helpful to the forest industry. And there would still be the need to produce paper copies of agendas and information for the many city committees that exist.

However, the concern was raised, and a few months ago someone in administration suggested that Kindles (electronic readers) should be provided to council, rather than the binders of material that we receive weekly. At the time I pointed out that the local public school board has been using laptops for this purpose for a few years now, and that a laptop would be more practical and have multiple uses, rather than a single use gadget such as a Kindle. Before our recent vacation, someone suggested to Andrea that she should get a Kindle, so that she could load up several books on one book-sized object, rather than bringing along a dozen or more books. She responded that if she dropped a book, she could always find her place again, but if she dropped a Kindle, she would be out both the books, the gadget, and the purchase price. However, she did try a demonstration model in a Chapters in Peterborough, and found it quite frustrating - it took longer to load a page of the book than it did for her to read the page. And when we both finished books on our vacation, we left them behind in hotel rooms or on the train, for others to enjoy - no such opportunity to share with a Kindle.

Nothing further happened with the Kindle idea for council, but now it has resurfaced in a slightly different form. The suggestion now is that each member of council, plus several senior staff members, should get I-pads - 22 in total. Agendas and attachments could be sent out electronically, rather than being delivered to each councillor every Thursday, as is the current practice.

I have several concerns about this - one is that this is a fairly new gadget, and I don't believe in buying the first version of any new electronic gadget. There are just too many operational issues that aren't usually resolved until subsequent iterations, and the price also goes down. I was reminded of my first term on council, when the then-city clerk purchased a new gadget (for $70,000) that was supposed to help the office run more efficiently - it was never even taken out of the box, because it turned out not to be suitable for the purpose in mind.

Anyway, I checked on some web-sites about problems that have been occurring with I-pads, and apparently there have been a number of complaints about users being unable to download sent information, and difficulty in making connections to wireless networks - these problems would be directly applicable to the purposes for which these I-pads are being proposed.

Another concern that I have is that this expenditure has not been budgeted for (not a surprise with this council and administration, but still not a good way to operate), and the proposed solution from administration is that for the eight councillors, we could pay for them using our communications allowance for the next two years. This is the allowance ($500 annually) that we can use for our home office expenses - computers, newsletters, fax paper, that sort of thing, but not cell phones. The mayor, of course, doesn't have to pay for his office expenses, nor is administration proposing that he pay for his I-pad. And of course, the dozen or so that they are proposing be purchased for city adminstration would be paid for out of the city budget.

I resent the assumption by administration that they can redirect the allowance that I get for my home office expenses. I also resent that this hasn't been discussed by council - not how serious the issue is, or whether this is the appropriate solution. Once again, it's as though some members of council (and administration) want to get their hands on the latest toy out there, whether it's what we need to do our job well.

The final irony to this proposed solution? Paper copies of everything will still be on our desks for every meeting. The only savings will be in not having the material delivered by hand once a week.

"There are no shortcuts to any place worth going." - Beverly Sills

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