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City makes move for transparency, greater efficiency

May 16, 2014

Councilmen Keith Glidewell (l) and David Stottlemyre.

Granicus, the computer program city officials mentioned earlier this year during deliberations about whether to move nighttime council meetings to the afternoon, will soon be up and running on the City of Bishop website.
After at least seven months of discussions and even demonstrations and training sessions from Granicus representatives, the council unanimously approved spending $16,198 in start-up costs and $10,188 a year over at least the next three years to add the web-based program to city operations. The program will be launched in late August or early September.
The purchase comes at a time when the city is looking at every department and expense for ways to cut costs. And while the vote was unanimous, not all the council members were enthused about spending almost $17,000.
The computer program was first mentioned back in December when the council was considering moving its nighttime meetings to the afternoon – in order to save $12,000 a year in overtime costs. “We took the position that we want to give it a try, because ($12,000) is a lot of money,” Councilman David Stottlemyre said in January. Ultimately, the council decided against the move, for now, but Granicus was mentioned as a possible solution for constituents unable to get to daytime meetings.
According to Councilman Keith Glidewell, a vocal proponent for upgrading and overhauling the city’s information technology tools and resources, the expenditure on Granicus is really an investment in greater in-house efficiency and overall transparency – a way to “cultivate more community involvement.”
“It’s useful on two fronts,” he said at the May 12 council meeting.
Glidewell explained that Granicus will allow the city to live stream council meetings online and will also store and archive them on the website so they may be watched or even referenced by individual agenda item at any time in the future. “People can watch it immediately the next day,” Glidewell said.
Through Granicus’ e-comment feature, residents will also be able to weigh in on current matters of interest via the website and have their comments transmitted directly to the council members.
The software also automatically transcribes the meeting’s minutes – relieving Assistant City Clerk Robin Picken of anywhere from six to eight hours of work typing a written record of every council study session and meeting, twice a month, 64 times a year.
Picken isn’t the only staffer who spends an inordinate amount of time transcribing meeting minutes, which must also be prepared and published for the Planning and Parks and Recreation commissions, which meet monthly, and the Water and Sewer Commission, which meets once a quarter, according to City Administrator Keith Caldwell.
Considering Granicus will save Picken and the other meeting secretaries $18,000 worth of staff time each year, “it pays for itself,” Glidewell said. Councilman Stottlemyre – Inyo County’s next Tax Assessor – said the same thing at the April 14 study session, calling the purchase “an investment, not an expense, that will pay for itself.”
But Councilwoman Laura Smith has been quick to point out the savings don’t actually pencil out.
Picken estimates she alone spends an average of 144 hours of staff time a year, worth $9,072, preparing minutes. She and the other meeting secretaries’ time spent preparing meeting minutes totals $21,015 worth of labor. With Granicus now able to do the majority of the work – Picken and the secretaries will still need to put finishing touches on the documents, check for errors and publish them to the website – the city stands to gain about $18,000 back in productivity, Picken said.
Picken did not include overtime costs in her analysis, which was presented to the council at its April 14 study session. She and Caldwell acknowledged that because so much time is spent working meeting minutes, overtime is accrued and the hope is Granicus will eliminate those costs outright.
According to Smith and Caldwell, utilizing Granicus won’t save the city $18,000. Staff will still be paid for that time – and the city will still have to come up with the $16,198 and subsequent $10,188 a year. “(Granicus) is a great tool but I disagree on the cost savings because a lot of that isn’t actually cost savings,” Smith said.
Where the benefit is, Caldwell explained, is that the city will be able to spend that $18,000 on staff that is working on more important tasks than transcribing meeting minutes. In other words, Granicus will increase the city’s in-house productivity, giving it more bang for the bucks it already spends.
“It’ll be great,” Picken said. “I can start working on projects and even grants.”
The initial cost of $16,198 includes a one-time expense of $954 to install audio and video equipment in the City Council chambers. Of that total, $4,175 will be paid from this fiscal year’s City Council budget and the remaining $11,069 will be covered in the 2014-15 council budget.
The initial cost covers an 18-month service agreement. After that, the city will pay $10,188 a year – automatically renewed for a year at a time for up to three terms unless either the city or Granicus wants to change or back out of the contract altogether. The subsequent annual costs will be divided among the groups utilizing the program.
In addition to believing Granicus will pay for itself, Glidewell said at the May 12 council meeting the money for the purchase is there in savings created by the council elsewhere.
“I think of this as a re-allocation of the City Council budget,” he said.
Earlier this year and last winter during budget workshops, the council cut as much $9,500 a year out of its travel budget – money that Glidewell said is better spent providing a useful tool for staff and the public.
And it’s a tool that will hopefully appeal to the youth of the community, Stottlemyre said, who aren’t participating in community groups anymore. He cited the Elks Lodge as an example. Stottlemyre said he thinks the technology “will reach out to (youth) in a forum they will truly understand.” He also said council members could participate in meetings from other locations.
Smith still wasn’t completely sold. “My philosophy is more when you save money, save the money,” she said, and don’t go spend it elsewhere.
But, she said she’d be willing to go along with the purchase as long as the council tracked how well the program delivered on its many promises and took the time to re-evaluate its necessity in the future.

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