For Web-ready council, paper is so last century

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / December 27, 2010

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Here’s a holiday gift for the government gadfly who just can’t get enough consent agendas, hearing orders, and nonbinding resolutions: The Boston City Council is going paperless.

It means that all the council’s work — every committee report, every 17F request for city data, every “whereas’’ — will be instantly available on the Internet.

But wait, there’s more.

New software will improve live streaming coverage of all City Council proceedings. And it will allow for video indexing, creating a searchable database of video clips that will be linked to agendas. A search, for example, of dog parks will find all documents, all discussions, and all video clips about playgrounds for pooches.

That’s not all.

Each councilor will get a touch-screen tablet computer to use during meetings. Some day, members may even be able to vote with the tap of a finger.

“This is exciting for the city and the City Council,’’ said Michael P. Ross, the outgoing City Council president, who led a significant technological push during his two years in the leadership post. “It will allow for far more transparency than we currently have, immediate access to real time information, and we’ll be saving money.’’

The new system will eliminate the need for a stenographer, Ross said, and will save money, labor, and hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper. The city will pay a $35,000 start-up cost and then a yearly maintenance and virtual-hosting fee of $23,000. After the initial investment, the program is expected to save about $35,000 a year, officials said.

Gone will be the inch-thick paper packets prepared for each weekly meeting — enough to fill an entire 48-inch-wide file drawer over the course of a year. Staff made 26 copies of the material each week, amounting to a 104-foot tower of paper each year, or roughly 312,000 sheets.

The new system is the work of SIRE Technologies, based in a suburb of Salt Lake City. The company has done the same work for 400 municipal and county governments in the United States and Canada.

“The big difference is going to be for the general public that doesn’t go to the meeting but yet has questions about what goes on at the meetings,’’ said Mark Mason, SIRE’s director of sales in the eastern United States. “Or if there is something they want to research, and it’s six months later or six years later, now all that information will be available at their fingertips.’’

The software will be ready to go early next month, but council members will have to wait for their tablet computers, which are on back order from demand over the holidays. The technological leap is a particular point of pride for Ross, whose first job with the City of Boston was as Web master, circa 1994.

Perhaps more important, the change will not force Mayor Thomas M. Menino to take up an iPad. While the mayor has embraced technology for the city, he spends scant time with computers. Menino’s idea of dashing off a message is an abrupt phone call.

“He can still do what he does and this can still occur without him having to radically change how he performs his duties,’’ Ross said. “The biggest recipient will be the citizens, who will be able to peel back another layer of what it is we are doing.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at