Ira Levy isn't wasting any time in dealing with short-term and long-term needs of the county government

New technology czar starts off fast

January 03, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Burdened with two BlackBerry-type devices and a telephone earpiece and lugging a laptop computer in a shoulder bag, Ira Levy can look like a man weighed down by technology.

But Howard County's new technology czar seems comfortably confident. Just two weeks into the job, the 34-year-old Levy has a clear idea of both his short- and long-term tasks, and he's making progress.

By midmonth, he's expecting to eliminate a vexing dual e-mail system that has frustrated County Council members. In addition, new electronic filters are screening out junk e-mail that was taking some county workers up to a half-hour a day to wade through. And a long-term idea might enable residents to view county meetings when they want, on home computers, instead of having to wait for scheduled broadcasts on government cable television.

"It's just exciting to think about the opportunities," Levy said, adding that the county's technical posture is similar to what he's encountered in previous jobs at a Florida college and with two area nonprofit groups.

For residents, Levy and County Executive Ken Ulman want to ultimately make it easier to see and find information about what the government is doing.

"First and foremost is to make sure that county government is operating efficiently and effectively, with the citizens in mind," Ulman said.

For example, Levy said, the county could eventually provide one place where residents can find out everything going on in their area instead of searching various county Web sites. The larger goal is clear, he said.

"Stay flexible with a mobile community," Levy said. "People are out and about. They need to stay in touch and feel connected."

Ulman said he's found lots of room for improvement.

"Most citizens don't appreciate how information technology pervades every aspect of county government," he said.

Even at the county's Alpha Ridge Landfill, Ulman said, the computer used to record commercial trash truck weights on which dumping charges are based fails weekly. That forces the entry clerk to issue handwritten tickets and then enter the data later. Meanwhile, computer failure leads to long lines of trucks waiting to unload.

Improving communications among county government buildings and agencies could take longer because that involves upgrading the hardware and wiring to add capacity.

The irony, Levy said, is that many residential users have wiring with more capacity to transfer information and images than the county government buildings have.

"A lot of departments have their own [computer] systems that grew up" separately and don't always communicate, he said.

For example, financial applications used by some agencies don't work with the county budget office.

A former teacher and psychology major, Levy said he feels his human communications skills are even more important than his technical expertise when it comes to upgrading technology.

"You have to have a very strong relationship with the people who are going to be using it," Levy said. "If we don't have people invested in success, you will be out there on your own and you will lose control."

Levy, who grew up in Baltimore and now lives in Columbia with his wife and 3-year-old twins, has enjoyed a good start in his $135,658 job.

"I've been incredibly impressed with Ira," Ulman said.

Levy's two most recent jobs - with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and before that The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore - were good preparation for a county government job, the executive said, because their structure isn't too different from the way a government is set up. Both are umbrella groups that oversee the work of a variety of agencies, nursing homes and community centers.

County Council members also seem pleased.

"He seems to have a pretty good grasp of technology and the needs of the county," said Councilman Greg Fox, a western county Republican.

Fox added: "He knows the technical jargon, but he's able to speak in layman's terms."

Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, called Levy "a very capable, energetic individual who not only understands the big picture, but how all the parts fit into it."

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said she's excited because "all the ideas that I sort of wanted to see implemented, he's already thought of."

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, hasn't met Levy, but she and others complained about the dual e-mail system they must use.

She and other members didn't initially see Ulman's e-mail announcing that he had hired Levy because it was sent to an internal message system that they can't access on mobile devices outside the office.

"It's very cumbersome to use," Watson said, noting that other e-mails that are viewable on the hand-held BlackBerry devices the county provided disappear after they are viewed the first time.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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