SUMMIT, NJ - The merits of going 'paperless' -- specifically narrowing down to a bare minimum the use of printed agenda packets which can contain hundreds of pages -- was the subject of significant discussion at the second February Summit Common Council session.
The merits and savings of going digital, which may mean supplying every member of the Summit Common Council with a computer tablet in lieu of paper agenda packets, were weighed against the potential taxpayer expense. The topic was raised in response to a resolution directed at allowing the City to exceed the state-mandated bidding threshold.
New Jersey law allows municipalities to solicit quotations from service providers up to $17,500 without the necessity of following the formal competitive bidding procedure.
Summit’s City engineer has worked with the City’s information technology arm to solicit quotes and compare pricing with state and cooperative pricing systems for the purchase of a GIS server. The server purchase cost is $16.989.
According to a memorandum to the Council from City Clerk Rosemary Licatese, “This is the only other purchase of computer hardware to date for the year, but the purchase of the tablets would cause the aggregate amount for the purchase of computer hardware to exceed the city’s bid threshold of $17,500.”
Licatese’s memo, citing the support of City Administrator Michael Rogers, recommended continuing reduction in the number of paper agenda packets to three -- the official file copy to be maintained as the city’s official record, and two copies for public inspection -- one at City Hall / City Clerk’s office, and one at the Summit Free Public Library.
To achieve this goal, according to the clerk, it would be necessary to provide City-owned laptops to members of the Council, the administrator and the clerk to access the PDF-formatted version of the agenda packet that is uploaded to the City’s website.
In order to meet the purchase price of the tablets, estimated at about $8,000, without going through the formal bidding process, the council would have to authorize the exceeding of the $17,500 threshold for the purchase of computer hardware.
In discussing the bid threshold resolution, however, Council members raised a number of other questions pertaining to replacing the current system with one in where each is issued a city-owned tablet.
- Is it fair to ask Summit taxpayers to fund purchase of a tablet for each Council member?
- If Council members currently have their own personal tablets can they use them in lieu of the City-purchased models?
- If Council members are required to purchase personal computer tablets to access municipal records does this put an undo financial burden on those contemplating running for office?
- If Council members use their own tablets are they secure enough to prevent unauthorized access to confidential records; and, likewise, does the state's Open Public Records Act require residents to have access to records maintained on Council members’ personal tablets?
In addressing the tablet issue, Ward II Councilman Patrick Hurley noted that the current agenda packets are 150 to 300 pages in length at times and City police officers are required to deliver the paper packets to governing body members’ homes.
Hurley said the annual savings in these two functions alone would justify the expenditure for the tablets.
Additionally, the Ward II representative, who is employed in the security industry, said many of the earlier fears of lack of security of electronic documents have been done away with due to advances in security.
He did note, however, that he has his own tablet and uses it to access documents needed for City business. He also said it is possible for Council members with their own tablets to purchase software that enables each of them to have the same uniform access to City records.
Although supportive of the savings in paper and savings in delivery methods that tablets could potentially bring, Ward I Councilman David Naidu said the Council had a number of priorities to consider when formulating this year’s budget and he did not see why City taxpayers should foot the bill for tablets for each council member.
Naidu added the material that would be available via the tablets could be accessed on the City website or on Council members’ smartphones, for example.
He was more supportive of the tablets if they were restricted to paid City staff members.
Ward II Councilwoman Mary Ogden said she also has her own tablet and was less inclined to support City purchase of the tablets unless the City could save on the purchase price by buying them in bulk.
Rogers replied he didn’t believe the City would get a bulk-purchase discount on the tablets.
Councilman-at-Large Richard Sun echoed many of Ogden comments, saying City purchase of the tablets would not be a fair expenditure of taxpayer funds.
Ward I Councilman Robert Rubino, although pointing out that the tablets would be City property and not “gifts” to Council members, said he preferred the option of using paper editions of the agenda packets and didn’t think it was an onerous burden on the City clerk to maintain and distribute paper packets to those who wished to use this option.
Council president Michael McTernan said, however, that it did not appear to make much economic sense to purchase the tablets for Council members if some members were allowed to “opt out” of the use of the tablets.
McTernan added that he also was concerned with imposing an extra burden on incoming Council members to purchase their own tablets.
Mayor Norma Radest, who said her tablet -- with purchase of software recommended by Hurley -- enables her to have uniform access to City records all in one place.
Radest added she didn’t think it was fair to ask those running for office to foot the bill for personal tablets and she didn’t find the City’s purchase to the tablets to be an onerous burden on taxpayers.
On the security question about use of personal tablets, Licatese said use of their devices could leave them open to OPRA requests for data stored on those devices.
City solicitor Matthew J. Giacobbe added that a state court had ruled that a Fair Lawn council member who kept city records on a personal device had those records subject to the Open Public Records Act.
He added that OPRA requirements also would require Council members with access to City records to maintain copies of those records so they could be accessed by the public at a later date.
When the time came for a vote on exceeding the bid threshold in connection with the possible purchase of the computer tablets, the measure passed 4-3 with Sun, Naidu and Rubino voting against it.
On another matter, the Council unanimously adopted a $6,500,000 bond ordinance for renovations to the Summit Community Center.
Hurley, who is the council general services chairman, explained that the cost of the proposed renovations came in about $800,000 above the original projections.
The overages result from $500,000 worth of site work that was never included in the original Rosen Kelly Conway plan / budget, which dates back to 2012. Also, $300,000 in soft costs -- such as architecture fees, construction management, outside professional estimator, required testing -- were also not included in the original plans.
City Chief Financial Officer Margaret Gerba added that the cost of the renovations would be offset by about $600,000 already contributed in private donations for the project.
Hurley said about $1.4 million had been pledged in donations and, as these pledges are fulfilled, that money would be used to further reduce the cost of the renovations.
Gerba added any pledges fulfilled after the bond sale would be used to offset debt service on the bonds.
On another matter, McTernan cited the many contributions to the community by former Mayor Frank H. Lehr, who passed away the week before the meeting at the age of 91.
McTernan noted that Lehr had served as a Marine in both World War II and the Korean Conflict, founded a successful engineering firm and served for 13 years on the Council, where he had been its president, before being elected mayor -- a position in which he served from 1976 to 1979.
The council president also noted Lehr had served on the Joint Meeting of Union and Essex Counties for 10 years, six as its chairman.
He also was the last Summit resident elected to the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders, serving from 1980 to 1997 and chairing that body.