PORT ORCHARD — As our interactions with the world seem to have shrunken to fit within the perimeters of a computer screen as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — think “Zoom” — Port Orchard Mayor Rob Putaansuu reminds that it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
From hosting City Council meetings online over Zoom to conducting the city’s business from a home office and interacting with department heads and constituents, Putaansuu said — aside from the occasional home disruption by the family dog announcing the mail carrier’s arrival — this improvised way of doing the people’s work has generated some unexpected benefits.
It also has led to brainstorming by the mayor and his department leadership about how technology can be leveraged to ultimately provide greater community access to the workings of city government, while also saving taxpayer money.
“This is horrible what’s happening in our world, but I think there are some good things that are going to stick around — things that have forced us to evolve,” Putaansuu said.
Thanks to an influx of federal CARES money being used to modify city workspaces to accommodate the new work-from-home environment, he said changes being made are not only making the forced COVID-19 distancing routine tolerable but as a result, it’s better equipped city government to make permanent changes that will result in greater productivity and cost savings.
“I’ve had some of our council members embrace technology and move away from paper,” he said. “[At a recent staff retreat], I got all of them to commit to technology and got them Microsoft Surface laptops to access council meeting packets [rather than having them print out the typically bulky packets].
“We had to learn how to conduct ourselves on Zoom, but we’ve had more participation in our council meetings and other boards that I’ve been on than I’ve ever seen. We’re actually well-equipped to conduct our council meetings [online]. I think that’s a good thing.”
One of the city’s four newly added staff members, as reflected in the latest biennium budget, is a new IT expert.
“We’ve got 85 employees now and an IT department of one. He’s stretched pretty doggone thin,” Putaansuu said. The new employee, he added, has a background in process improvement related to technology, which will be put to use to improve processes related to teleworking capabilities.
When City Council meetings are expected to resume in a more traditional fashion later this year, the mayor said recent investments in new cameras were made so that council meetings can be streamed live to viewers. “We’ll be able to engage the public in ways that we haven’t historically in the past. I’m excited about that,” the mayor said.
With the resulting increase in staffing and community servicing needs, the city has been looking at increasing its workspace footprint. the mayor said. But that comes with a hefty price tag. Putaansuu said a recent site assessment looking into adding more office space at City Hall would cost at least $6 million — twice the cost estimate just four years ago. That doesn’t factor in two other badly needed renovations; the estimated costs to weatherize the building and replace the City Hall’s roof — would likely add another $6 million.
Instead, partly as a result of City Council meetings being conducted remotely over the past year, Putaansuu said the third floor of City Hall — dominated by the City Council’s 10,000-square-foot chambers meeting space — has been unused. Even when in full operation, he said, that space is used only three times a month.
As it continues to explore cost-effective space alternatives, Putaansuu said the city is looking into using a portion of the planned South Kitsap Community Events Center for public meetings, including those held by the City Council.
Next issue: Mayor Putaansuu discusses the city’s 2020 achievements and 2021 goals and objectives.