Scandia Planning Commission struggles with paperless packets

 

Computer-only policy makes job difficult

 

Mary Bailey
Community Editor

Before each meeting of the Scandia City Council, Planning Commission, Park and Recreation Committee or Wastewater Advisory Board, city staff prepare an information packet.

For each topic on the agenda, the question to be discussed is presented with background information, costs and options.

Some topics fit on a single page, but others (such as sewer studies) require so many pages they are bound into books. Maps and architect’s drawings often take large paper and color printing. In the past, every member of the group received a printed copy.

In March the City Council voted to save money by no longer printing the meeting information on paper. Instead, small laptop computers called netbooks were installed in the council chambers, where all the groups meet. Each member can refer to the netbook screen during the meeting.

Since then the Planning Commission has wrestled with the difficulty of doing their job without paper.

In order to analyze residents’ variance requests, Planning Commission members do site visits before they gather in the council chambers. The netbooks, however, cannot be taken to the sites.

In the process of writing a new ordinance to cover rural commercial events, such as hosting a barn wedding for profit, the commission must refer to wording and decisions from past meetings. With the computer, they can see only one document at a time. They cannot write notes in the margin, highlight text or edit with a pencil as they did in the past.

Planning Commission Chair Christine Maefsky, in a letter dated March 22, respectfully requested that the council reconsider its decision. While she uses computers regularly, Maefsky said, she finds it difficult to analyze lengthy documents without a paper copy. The policy was not changed after that request.

During the months following the change, Maefsky wrote in a second letter, one commissioner coped by requiring the city to provide a paper copy under the Americans with Disablities Act. Two printed packets on their own printers. One picked up the single public copy that the city prints for the audience, if no one was using it. One used only the electronic version, saying he did so reluctantly.

In August, three commissioners asked the city to print paper copies for the September meeting and said they would pay for the copies themselves. City staff did so, charging $.25 per side.

At the Oct. 1 meeting, the planning commission placed paperless packets on the agenda.

“We’re asked to do what I think is a very important job here, and I have tried to do my best. That requires that I take copious notes,” Maefsky said.

Jan Hogle said it is impossible to do the required analysis without paper copies. “The intent was to save money, but it negatively affected our effectiveness.” The result was penny wise and pound foolish, she said.

In her field of educational psychology, Hogle said, research has shown that writing versus selecting is an entirely different learning experience.

Steve Philippi, who said he is transitioning from paper to digital in his professional life, finds that he needs both versions. “You see and retain different things from the two formats,” he said. “Taking notes by hand is more memorable. It’s hard to scan multiple documents digitally. It’s affected my ability to contribute to the meetings.”

Peter Schwarz agreed, saying the computers were slowing the planning commission down. “We’re taking longer than we should,” he said. “This actually has cost more money because it takes more time.”

Schwarz also finds it hard to read the electronic version. “This little computer screen is too small for me,” he said. “I can barely read it close to my nose.”

Sue Bies said it helps to have a paper copy at site visits, and then refer to the paper during the meeting.

Hogle and Maefsky also questioned the city’s handling of the change. “This was all handled exactly the wrong way,” Hogle said.

“We were not consulted at all,” Maefsky added.

Maefsky suggested that certain parts of the packet need not be printed. In her March 22 letter, she pointed out the difference between minimizing the use of paper and going paperless. Banning paper entirely is extreme, she wrote, “and going from one extreme to another is rarely a good idea.”

City Administrator Kristina Handt said the council and other groups have no trouble with the digital-only rule. She asked, “How can we help you adapt to this paperless policy?”

Mayor Randall Simonson and Council member Chris Ness, a former planning commissioner, attended the meeting. Ness said the decision to go paperless had nothing to do with respect for the work of the commission and expressed support for the compromise of printing only certain components of the packets.

Simonson said transitions can be difficult and told the story of when he was forced to learn to use a computer while in the Air Force.

The commission planned to bring a resolution to the council for further discussion.

Other entities

The Forest Lake City Council recently moved to electronic packets and netbooks.

Wyoming uses a combination. Council members receive electronic versions of the packet, and the police also deliver paper packets to them. One member does not use e-mail, and one brings an iPad to meetings, according to Assistant City Administrator Rob Linwood.

In Columbus the council has indicated they want paper packets, City Administrator Elizabeth Mursko said. The planning commission also uses paper, and there are no plans to change.

School District 831 board members do not receive paper, relying entirely on the electronic version. In the more detailed committee meetings, however, paper copies are distributed to share budget information, for example.

In general, one advantage to having the entire packet available electronically is that not just officials but anyone with a computer and on-line access can read the materials.

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