MARSHALL - The Marshall City Council has made the jump to holding paperless meetings in the past few weeks. However, the savings of switching to a computerized system can be measured less in paper than in time, Marshall City Administrator Ben Martig said this week.
"There's a substantial amount of time that has been saved," especially in preparing for city council meetings, Martig said. The paperless system also makes it possible for the public to get information about upcoming agenda items online.
In April, city staff implemented a customized version of Electronic School Board, the computer program Marshall Public Schools uses for paperless board meetings. Council members now conduct meeting business, from taking attendance to voting, on a network of laptop computers. The system is connected to projector screens, which display the council agenda, items of business and even the votes cast by individual council members. The paperless system also publishes the council's agenda and minutes, through Marshall's city website.
City staff began reviewing options for paperless council meetings in 2009, although it wasn't placed on the municipal budget until the 2012 fiscal year, Martig said. It was important that the city had the time to do its research, he said.
"There are a number of companies that provide (paperless meeting) software, and it continues to evolve," Martig said. Demonstrations of different computerized systems, and a breakdown of their potential costs, all factored into the decision. After reviewing different programs, the city opted for a customized version of ESB, Martig said. Marshall is the first city to use the program.
Martig said there were several benefits to using the ESB system, including features that made it easier for council members to look up agenda information without losing track of the current agenda item. Another was the opportunity to partner with Marshall Public Schools for the paperless meeting technology. Martig said the city and the school district are sharing costs for computer servers and laptops for the paperless system.
Martig said the city has a five-year contract for the ESB program. Total costs for it, including software licenses, system maintenance and training are about $8,300 a year, he estimated.
Martig said going paperless will cut down on the hundreds of printed pages that used to be prepared for each city council meeting, but the system's main value is in freeing up more staff time for other things. Putting together agenda packets for council meetings used to be a task that involved a lot of "paper shuffling," or sending emails back and forth to city officials for review, he said. Instead, the new ESB software helps centralize information on potential agenda items and notifies city officials when there is an item that needs their approval. City office staff also save time by not having to organize and print copies of the agenda packets, he said.
"I think we're going to see more and more communities going with this," Martig said of paperless meetings.
The paperless meeting system also has the added benefit of transparency, Martig said. Once items are placed on the council's agenda, they are posted on the city of Marshall's website, www.marshallmn.com.
"As soon as we approve an agenda packet, it's also made available to the public," Martig said. Members of the public can view the items and click on them for detailed information. Once the city council has taken action on an item, the ESB program automatically updates the information to include the results. City council minutes are also available through ESB.
Regular meeting agendas will usually be available by the Friday afternoon before a council meeting, he said. Council meetings are held the second and fourth Tuesday of each month.