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Bemidji City Council: City embracing technology

Ward 1 Bemidji City Councilor Michael Meehlhause uses his iPad during a recent Bemidji Public Library Board meeting. Councilors and staff have been using the devices to increase efficiency and cut down on paper. John Hageman |Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – There’s a lot less paper shuffling during city council meetings here these days.

Instead, councilors and staff are swiping their fingers across the glowing glass screens of city-issued Apple iPads to peruse background information on agenda items and check their schedules.

Ward 3 City Councilor Ron Johnson, a Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and League of Minnesota Cities board member, said he’s found that many officials from other cities are using iPads.

“They’ve talked about how it’s saved a tremendous amount of dollars, when you consider all the paper, all the copying, all the collating to put those books together,” Johnson said. “And it’s so efficient.”

Johnson said in the past, he’s kept some items from previous meeting packets in case they come up again.

“You get quite a pile after 12 years on the council,” he said. Johnson added that looking at maps is easier on the iPad, which may make them appealing for the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board.

City clerk Kay Murphy said the devices have cut down on time that city staff has to put together councilors’ meeting packets. Instead, a simple one or two-page meeting agenda is usually the only paper they’ll use.

Although the city will be able to cut down on printing paper, Murphy said they will never be completely paperless, considering ordinances and other documents need to be in paper form. She added those have been backed up digitally as well.

The iPads are city-owned, and once a councilor’s term in office is over, they’ll be turned back over to the city, Murphy said. She said the devices, which cost about $600 each, come out of each department’s budget.

Besides making city hall a bit more efficient, the iPads have been a convenient tool.

Ward 1 Councilor Michael Meehlhause said he’s used his iPad to look up things on the Internet, like specifics of Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget proposal, during meetings.

Ward 4 Councilor Reed Olson, who was appointed at the end of January, hasn’t been issued his iPad yet, but he’s looking forward to using it.

“I work from at least 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, and even though I’m only a block from city hall, I don’t always have the time during the week to grab my packet on Thursday or Friday,” Olson said.

Councilor Roger Hellquist, Mayor Rita Albrecht and city manager John Chattin have been using iPads during meetings as well. Others, however, still prefer the paper edition.

“I’m going to avoid technology as much as possible for the rest of my life,” Councilor Jim Thompson said with a laugh. Councilor Nancy Erickson has also said she plans on sticking with paper.

Meanwhile, the city and the joint planning board have introduced video on demand on the city’s website. There, people can watch previous meetings and skip ahead to individual agenda items.

Murphy said the city is using money from public education and government fees, or PEG fees, to pay for that service.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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