Legislators use tablets for county work

FONDA – Montgomery County government is going from paper and ink to touch screens.

Last month, all nine county legislators received tablets to do their legislative work.

Dan Colon, director of the county’s Data Processing and Printing Department, was responsible for the change.

Colon said he tested different types of tablets over the past year and decided on the Microsoft Surface RT.

Colon said the total cost of all of the tablets combined is about $6,000. Each tablet alone costs roughly $400.

“We decided that we should provide all of the legislators with tablets to cut down on printing, give them quick access to the agenda and the resolutions and allow them to access legislative stuff from home and the chambers,” Colon said. “We wanted to give them a device that had Microsoft Excel so that they could do work when it’s budget time, and this tablet had Microsoft Office and all of its components already included.”

In addition to the legislators, the county executive and department heads for the Board of Elections, History and Archives and the Department of Public Works also received tablets.

Colon said the Microsoft Surface RT is the “light” version of the Microsoft Surface tablet compared to the “pro” version. He said the light version is half the price and only has a few limitations.

“It’s basically half laptop and half tablet,” he said. “It’s all touch screen, but it has Microsoft Windows 8, so you have Microsoft Office, which works better in the business environment.”

Colon said the information on the Surface can be viewed on different monitors.

Colon said he hasn’t calculated the savings the transition will have on the county, but he estimates it’s big. He said the transition also is making the lives of the legislators and the clerk easier.

“The clerk of the board would print out the entire agenda, including all of the resolutions, the backup and all the contracts; you could end up with 50 pages per person,” he said. “One of the biggest drivers for getting the tablets was reducing the amount of paper and ink being used. The Board of Supervisors would be flipping through all the pages on their desk and it was just a huge hassle. Now the legislators can just point and click on their tablet.”

County officials who have a tablet are allowed to bring it home. However, Colon said, they’re being trusted to only use the tablet for work.

“They’re professionals and we’re trusting them to be professionals. A lot of the legislators have other jobs, so they do their legislative work at night or on the weekends, so the tablet is convenient for them,” Colon said.

If anything were to be sent or received on the county-owned tablets, the tablets could be subject to being investigated under the Freedom of Information Law, said Robert Freeman, director of the state Department of State’s Committee on Open Government.

“The Freedom of Information Law is extremely expansive in its coverage,” Freeman said. “It includes all government agency records. The term record is defined to mean any information in any physical form whatsoever kept, held, filed, produced or reproduced by, with or for a government agency. So when a county legislator or a school board member or whomever sits down with his or her tablet and either enters or receives information in relation to his or her governmental function, that’s a record that falls within the framework of the law.”

Cheryl Reese, clerk of the Legislature, said she’s happy with the tablets.

“We’ve gotten to a point where technology has grown and we should grow with it,” Reese said. “We’re utilizing the tablets and they make everything easier and more organized. We use Google Calendar to share meetings and appointments, and we use the county website to upload meeting agendas and resolutions. The tablet makes everything more instantaneous and immediate.”

Jon Stead, administrative officer and clerk of the Fulton County Board of Supervisors, said Fulton County still prints all of their agenda items and documents.

“We do send some agenda work and the minutes from county meetings out to some of the supervisors depending on their computer situation at home,” Stead said.

Stead said acquiring tablets or hand-held technology for the entire board would be difficult since there are 20 supervisors.

“The size of our board here in Fulton County makes it a little more difficult in terms of providing all of the officials with hand-held devices and teaching them how to use them, and frankly, some of our officials just aren’t at that stage yet where they’re using hand-helds routinely,” he said.

Ryan Weitz, District 4 Montgomery County legislator, said the transition is positive.

“The Legislature had printed packets for two months before we got these tablets,” Weitz said. “I think the transition is great and it’s a step in the right direction for Montgomery County. It’s taking a little adjusting to get used to, but I think in the long run, we’ll be better off.”