Proposal to buy laptop PCs would put aldermen on-line Older officials lack enthusiasm of younger colleagues

January 12, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

Imagine complaining to an Annapolis alderman in the middle of the night. Or chatting with the mayor from your living room on a Sunday afternoon. Or pressing a point with the entire city council from your car during rush hour.

It could happen if the city council approves a measure to buy each aldermen a laptop computers and put them on the Internet. City residents and their representatives could be connected via e-mail.

The movement toward an on-line council is new, and if the laptop proposal is approved, Annapolis appears to be in could take the lead. In the e-mail revolution, the city could even beat Baltimore, whose City Council members now tap at 8-year-old computers with no message functions.

"The reason is connectivity," said Thomas Roskelly, Annapolis' public relations director, who proposed the idea. "All these things are simply extensions of ways to communicate with each other."

The council's younger aldermen are embracing the proposal, saying it will bring speedier constituent communication and more sophisticated resident services. But the idea is putting the council's old-timers in a state of future shock.

"I don't see why the city should supply us with TVs or, what do you call them, computers," said Alderman Samuel Gilmer, 74, who doesn't know how to use a computer and prefers to write letters or visit constituents. "What do I need a laptop for? Who am I going to talk to?"

Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, 70, who doesn't know how to use e-mail, was similarly squeamish. also unconvinced. "It takes away from the personal touch," he said. "If you have a person-to-person relationship, that's better than an electronic relationship."

The council is scheduled to decide Jan. 22 whether to allocate $16,000 to buy 10 computers -- one for the mayor, eight for the aldermen and one spare. Laptops range in price from $1,200 to $2,700; although the average cost is $1,700. The computers would be paid for with money allocated in the city's capital budget.

Mr. Gilmer accused aldermen of wasting taxpayer dollars by buying laptops for themselves. "Why do we lowly little aldermen need to be on e-mail?" he said. "What do we have to do? There's nothing pressing at all."

But Alderman Carl O. Snowden, 41, whose council finance committee recently approved the purchase, said the computers are essential tools for aldermen who lack council offices, personal secretaries, government cars -- even city council stationery.

"This laptop computer will substitute those support services," he said. "It opens up the council to new possibilities."

Supporters of the idea call the laptops "mobile offices" that will allow constituents and council members to send e-mail to each other anytime, anywhere. Any city resident with a computer and a phone jack who can spend roughly $10 a month could get on-line.

The city already has put some electronic information on-line -- one can click on Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins and read brief biographical information about him Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, for example. City Hall has a general e-mail address through which messages to individual aldermen are routed.

But aldermen cannot sit down at do not have their own terminals and with which to carry on an electronic conversation. If each alderman has a laptop, computer conversations with constituents could be quicker and more confidential, said Alderman M. Theresa DeGraff.

Like most aldermen, Ms. DeGraff, 37, does not know how to use e-mail or the Internet. But she is eager to learn.

"It's fascinating," she said. "It's like opening up an encyclopedia for the first time."

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