Trying paperless meetings in Portola Valley


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By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

The glow of electronic display screens lit up the faces of Portola Valley Town Council members at their Aug. 25 meeting as they experimented with an agenda that, for the first time, lacked the ability to administer a paper cut.

Using their personal laptop computers, council members downloaded copies of the agenda from the town server beforehand so they could electronically page through them together in the manner of a paper document, but without the paper.

If the council decides to go ahead with this technology -- a discussion is set for Sept. 22 -- future meetings will have to involve a wireless connection, Mayor Steve Toben said in an e-mail. That way, each council member and laptop-equipped members of the public will have access to an online agenda and packet that everyone views together -- as is done with paper agendas and packets today.

That would require upgrading the Town Center's wireless capabilities so that they reach into the Historic Schoolhouse, where the council meets.

The plans would include a paper copy to be available at Town Hall and another at the library, according to Brandi deGarmeaux, the town's coordinator for environmental initiatives.

Asked to comment on the experience, Mr. Toben said he was pleased "at how smoothly the paperless packet experiment went. I liked it."

Councilwomen Maryann Derwin and Ann Wengert cited the unfamiliarity of making bookmarks, an online counterpart to self-stick notes.

Ms. Derwin said she reluctantly accepts the move away from paper as inevitable. "For me there is just no substitute for the feel of paper against a fingertip or the sound of a razor sharp felt tip pen against a page," she said.

"If we had Wi-Fi in the room," she added, "I know I would be tempted to check my e-mail during patches of long discussions."

Councilman Ted Driscoll noted the ease of searching a paperless document and that he could avoid recycling "99 percent" of his packet every two weeks. But those pluses were offset by the difficulty of seeing an entire page at an easily readable type size, he said.

Apple iPads may improve readability, council members said.

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