$23,000 for a City of Northfield laserfiche system. Huh?

laserfiche I was surprised to learn this week that at the end of 2009, the City of Northfield spent $23,000 for a laserfiche/document management system (p. 13 of the disbursement PDF; company: Crabtree). I thought it was still being considered. I asked City Clerk Deb Little to point me to the council agenda, packet, and minutes where the purchase was discussed and voted on.

Surprise #2: Deb wrote:

This was approved through the budget approval process.  In addition, the dollar amount falls under the cap that the City Administrator is able to approve.

No Council discussion? Not even a consent agenda item?

The only documentation I could find on the need for a laserfiche system was the Sept. 25, 2009 Friday Memo in which Deb wrote:

A request for quotations for an electronic document management system called Laserfiche was sent out this week. Some of the benefits of this system include increased: staff productivity & efficiency, public information accessibility, departmental information sharing, City application integration, disaster recovery preparedness and preservation, and compliance with state law on records retention requirements. Studies done on electronic document management systems show that they reduce: lost records, copies and storage space, customer service response time, staff time spent searching for information, and information liability.

The Council’s draft of its Strategic direction/goals puts the laserfiche project under Goal #2: “Develop and implement a plan for sustainable citizen communication.” I’m not convinced that laserfiche is mainly about sustainable citizen communication. It does have some features that would be helpful to citizens.  And my one-hour test run shows it has some problems.

Here’s the City of Faribault’s Laserfiche link. 

  • I searched for “CodeRed” which is referenced in many documents on the City of Faribault’s website. Laserfiche returned no results.
  • I searched for “water restrictions” which is a top story on the city’s website where it’s linked to a PDF. I got ten laserfiche results, but nothing for 2010. I did find two from 2006 titled “City of Faribault Public Notice Water Restrictions". Clicking them, I got this error message: “You do not have the necessary permissions to view the entry ’06-04-2006 City of Faribault Public Notice Water Restrictions’.”
  • I browsed the Faribault laserfiche documents starting here, working my way to the 05-11-10 City Council Meeting Packet? (which, oddly, doesn’t display a unique URL in the address bar). Each agenda item in the packet has its own URL, the pages can be viewed either as images or text, and you can select whichever pages you want and turn them into a PDF to download or link to… all of which is very nice to have.

I’m not informed enough about the pros and cons of laserfiche but I commented to Mayor Mary Rossing back in mid-February in a discussion here on Locally Grown that I thought it was

unconscionable for the City to pursue an expensive laserfiche/document management system right now. Taxpayers shelled out $80,000 for a new website just 5 years ago that was supposed to address that and other issues.

Something has failed. Is it a problem with the platform? Training? Skills? I think Council and staff owe taxpayers an explanation of the pros and cons of that $80K expenditure before more money is spent.

Alas, I didn’t realize at the time that it was a done deal two months prior.

20 thoughts on “$23,000 for a City of Northfield laserfiche system. Huh?”

  1. Griff: This is very confusing, because this was discussed at the council… not sure if it was a work session or regular meeting but I remember Melissa Reeder talking about it to the council.

    Maybe you might give Ms. Reeder a call , or the Admin. Asst., Jennifer Nash… either one of those might be able to track you back to the council agenda item or, maybe just a discussion.

    Also, didn’t it come up, once before, here?

  2. Well said, but I think that there are a few other things to consider here. In general, Laserfiche is not meant for just the public to view. Laserfiche is used by the City internally to store all of their records, not just public documents. When you browse to the records online, you are only seeing a fraction of what is actually stored in the system. All internal documents are usually entered into the system as well (things like Payroll, HR, and Building Records) and make it incredibly easy for the workers in the City to access and share information. It also provides a backup for all the documents in the City and will save lots of paper. Again, it’s not a application that just stores simple meeting minutes.

    To address some of your concerns:

    I searched for “CodeRed” which is referenced in many documents on the City of Faribault’s website. Laserfiche returned no results.

    Documents on the Website may be different than the ones stored in Laserfiche. Documents that have been posted to the website might just reside on the site and not be entered in Laserfiche. Therefore these will not show in a search result.

    I searched for “water restrictions” which is a top story on the city’s website where it’s linked to a PDF. I got ten laserfiche results, but nothing for 2010. I did find two from 2006 titled “City of Faribault Public Notice Water Restrictions”. Clicking them, I got this error message: “You do not have the necessary permissions to view the entry ‘06-04-2006 City of Faribault Public Notice Water Restrictions’.”

    As with above, the City may have posted the PDF on their Website but not scanned or imported the document into their Laserfiche system. So if you search for it, it may not be there as it’s not in the system. A document not being in the system does not mean there is something wrong with Laserfiche, it simply means the City has not scanned it in and made it available to you.

    As for as the permissions, that is an error on the City side setup. Their admins have posted a document but have not set correct security on it. Again, Laserfiche is working perfectly fine, but they just have not setup security correctly.

    I browsed the Faribault laserfiche documents starting here, working my way to the 05-11-10 City Council Meeting Packet? (which, oddly, doesn’t display a unique URL in the address bar). Each agenda item in the packet has its own URL, the pages can be viewed either as images or text, and you can select whichever pages you want and turn them into a PDF to download or link to… all of which is very nice to have.

    It will not display a unique ID in the address bar because Laserfiche is not a webpage. When you click on your 05-11-10 folder, it’s just a folder within the database, not a unique page. You will notice that once you click on a document though, the url displays a unique document id.

    In short, don’t sell Laserfiche short before you even get a chance to use it. The limitations you see on the Faribault site are not because of the Laserfiche program, but on how Laserfiche has been setup by the City and their consultants. The way Faribault has it (which I agree leaves much to be desired) will not necessarily be how Northfield may offer it to you.

    1. Jake, thanks for the comments. Yes, I realize that laserfiche has many internal staff uses, which is partly why I included a quote from Deb Little statement in the Friday Memo.

      But it’s also being pitched to the citizenry as one of several ways to improve “sustainable citizen communications.”

      Faribault’s implementation (I’m not sure when they purchased it) shows that it can contribute to MORE confusion and problems with citizen communications, eg, now everyone has TWO places to search.

      Your explanation that a folder does not have a linkable URL, that it’s just a database marker for a directory, makes sense but it’s a design flaw, IMHO. The fact that I can’t include the web address (in an email, blog post, tweet, IM, etc) of an agenda packet folder, for example, is very frustrating and in the age of social media, ridiculous.

  3. For what it is worth, there is a brief mention of this in a blog I submitted to the League of Women Voters in February: http://lwvnorthfieldmn.org/weblog/post/2118/

    As Jake says, one of Northfield’s purposes was to get all the records into electronic form. Another was to make certain records more accessible between department within the city organization and others to the public.

    As far as I know, nothing more has been said about it publicly. I wonder where the city is in setting it up.

    1. Jane, when you wrote up your LWV Observer’s Report of that Feb. Council work session, did you realize that the Laserfiche system had been purchased months prior? You used the word ‘would’ which indicates to me that you understood Joel Walinski was suggesting that the Council consider it, along with live streaming of the meetings, updates to the city website, etc. You wrote that Walinski:

      distributed information about Laserfiche. He noted that the city is several years behind many cities in implementing this latter resource, which would make information more accessible to the public; assist sharing of information between departments; and would assure preservation of records in the event of a local disaster.

  4. Griff: discussion of acquisition of a laserfiche system at a February, 2010 , work session (jane’s reference above) does not ‘square’ with the reply you got about the budget approval (last meeting of Dec.2009) process allowing the purchase of same.
    However, the amount the City Administrator is , at his discretion, allowed to spend without Council approval, does allow for that purchase.

    My comment, and question, would be this: I would agree that the city desperately needs to improve its record keeping … but, I have listened to discussion of all sorts of tiny $$ cuts with the justification of “we just need to cut everywhere we can”… so, is this $$ that need to be spent NOW?
    And there’s the source of funds to be considered… did the $$ come out of an appropriate fund with a large $$ surplus?
    Then , maybe a wise expenditure…

    1. I think it can be a confusing message to the public that it’s important to “cut everywhere we can think of, but $23K for laserfiche is a wise investment” even if the money came out of the cable TV fund.

      If it is a wise investment, then staff and the Council should take pains to explain why so to the public, ESPECIALLY since the money to pay for it is from a fund that is supposed to be dedicated to pay only for public communications-related stuff.

      Anytime that cable tv fund is considered to be tapped, there should be ample PR to the public about it, with ample Council discussion about it, with ample opportunities for public input about it.

      This was an expenditure that’s 75% or more for internal staff use and therefore, arguably not appropriate to pay for with money from the cable TV fund.

      And it’s more than a little ironic that the Council and staff, with a stated major goal to improve public communications, decided in this case that “we’re going to spend $23K from the public communications fund without any input from or communications with the public, all to improve communications with the public.”

      Again, I’m not necessarily against the laserfiche system. I don’t know enough yet. I’m just saying: the process sucked.

  5. Comments from Jake Porter above are helpful in explaining what you experienced, Griff.

    If Faribault hasn’t configured Laserfiche properly, what reason do we have to think that Northfield can do it?

    More to your point, I wonder how complicated it is to enter documents into the Laserfiche system. If setup requires any technological expertise whatsoever, I don’t have much confidence it will happen or that the citizens will see any direct benefit.

  6. Good point, Tracy. And it’s another reason why the Council should have intervened and insisted on a more thorough examination of the rationale along with public input.

    Does the Council know why the staff has had a hard time with the City’s $85,000 website?

    Did the Council understand and agree with staff arguments as to why it was important to purchase a $23K laserfiche system PRIOR to fixing the problems with the City’s website?

    Has the Council weighed the pros and cons of having staff spend more time learning to use a complex system like Laserfiche vs. having them spend more time learning to use social media tools to improve citizen communications/engagement?

    And here’s another version of my last question:

    Given that the Council will want significant public support (directly or indirectly) for its decision to build/expand facilities for the police, fire, and library, what are the pros and cons of having staff spend more time learning to use a complex system like Laserfiche vs. having them spend more time learning to use social media tools to improve citizen communications/engagement?

  7. Kiffi – I don’t recall the council ever discussing acquiring Laserfiche, do you? As you said, the decision may have been made administratively. I do recall that at the February 16 meeting, Joel Walinski mentioned the time-consuming aspect of putting records into that system. I don’t recall knowing that there were or were not in the process yet. That discussion was part of the report of the 2010 Goals , in particular, p. 9:
    http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/g/Goals-Summary-Report.
    According to that report – the Laserfiche work “needs to be done prior to web updates.”

    To the degree this is correct – that in order to make the data available to the public, it needs to be converted for whatever the correct term is) into Laserfiche data – I suppose one could justify using cable fund moneys for it. It may also account for the delay in updating the web site.

    Note that both processes are marked “in progress” in the February 16 report.

    To answer your question, Griff, no – I ddn’t know that it hadn’t been purchased earlier. I had the impression that they hadn’t started converting information yet, but my memory is hazy and I didn’t take good notes. And since that time, I’m not aware that there has been public discussion of updating the web site.

    My guess is that with all the other things on their plate ( safety facilities, business park, annexation, to name a few, pressing for an updated web site has low priority. Currently, the Mayor is the lead medium for building understand and support of the safety facilities and the library board and Friends of the Library, for doing the same for that facility.

    1. Jane : all I remember about this is what I had assumed was just an information presentation , to the council, from Melissa Reeder. At the time I thought it was information for the future, i.e. when there was some money available.

      It is astounding to me that almost every council meeting carries with it a dire cloud of money woes, and the solution is to make a bunch of smaller cuts…flower baskets and banners downtown…even middling cuts like freezing step raises… but then keep ‘purchasing’ things that seem to offset those cuts… and all the while ignoring the big cuts that will have to be made.

      None of us could afford to handle our home budgets that way; and what I really find disturbing is that there is always a explanatory rationale as to why a certain expenditure HAD to be made, NOW, and that decision is rarely questioned or discussed.

      The Council talks repeatedly of fear of micro-managing; however they are elected to ‘manage’, the staff is hired to implement that management.

      It has been the same the whole time I’ve been observing the Council; so considering all the different parties involved, it has to be a cultural determination of ‘style’…

      Consider the analogies of: the “Emperor’s New Clothes”. or “No one ever sits in the Front Pew” !

  8. In response to my question about the council’s communication improvements, I got this info from Melissa Reeder, Information Technology Director: “There is an item on the City Council work session scheduled for May 25th which addresses some of the questions you had about posting on the web site city calendar. The item is about standard operating procedures for web content (including calendar events) as well as some new social media policies.”

    No mention of Laserfiche.

  9. Jane, it’s not surprising that there’s no mention of laserfiche for the May 25th meeting because it’s a done deal. Staff training has evidently begun.

    It bugs me that the staff and Council aren’t questioning why the $80k we spent on a website isn’t working for handling the distribution of documents to the public. It should.

    And now we’re being told that $23K for laserfiche is for improving communications with the public, that it has to be implemented before the website can be fixed. That’s completely backwards, from what I’m able to understand.

    And again, the fact that the cable TV fund was used to pay for this without any public input or discussion with the council is really inappropriate. Even if it’s within the rules, why do things this way?

    Betsey raised the issue back in Feb. when the $9,600 hotel market study came to light.
    https://locallygrownnorthfield.org/post/15428/comment-page-1/#comment-97038

    The question for LG readers is – what actions do we leave to staff and what must Council approve specifically? My sense is that LG readers are more interested in more oversight. Maybe… but on the other hand, how do we set policy guidelines and then trust staff to carry them out? Could an action like this one which could be given to staff to execute assuming we’d provided enough direction?

  10. Griff, I think this is a tempest in a teapot – there had to be discussion on this during the budget approval process, and when the council approved the budget they approved the purchase. If the City Administrator had to get council approval for every purchase he makes he wouldn’t have time to get his work done. Boards and councils hire people for their expertise and, if the board or council members are very smart, they give them the room and authority to carry out the work of the position. $23,000 sounds like a lot of $$$, and because of the amount I am certain the purchase was discussed. I applaud the City wanting to go paperless, and I think this system will save $$$ in the long run. I like Betsy’s comment. Oversite is great – micromanagement hamnstrings. Lynn

    1. Lynn, I don’t think you can be certain it was discussed. It may have gotten a mention but no one seems to be able to remember it or point to it, including the person at City Hall in whose area it falls, City Clerk Deb Little. See her quote above.

      As for micromanaging, I do think it’s a tricky area which is why I made the effort to copy/paste Betsey’s comment. But remember, the money to pay for this did not come out of the general fund. It came from the cable TV fund which is dedicated for citizen communications. And since that’s been a big area of interest (goals established) for the Council since early 2009, why not A) talk about it; and B) talk with the citizens about it?

  11. I have no dog in any fight over Laserfiche, which could be good, bad, or indifferent as such software goes. And, conceivably, social networking could be a better route to follow. Just some random thoughts from an outsider’s perspective, mainly uncontaminated by facts:

    1. I have no idea whether $23K is a good price for this particular product. But the idea of spending $23K on what could be a useful tool for productivity and better e-reference to city documents does not strike me as self-evidently foolish or wasteful.

    2. $23K is not chopped liver, but it’s only about 0.2% of the city budget, so if efficiency or transparency is improved, the money could be well spent. If staff time can be saved or productivity improved, it won’t take long to amortize that cost.

    3. Griff links this expenditure to $88K having been spent 5 years ago (a pretty long time in e-reality …) to improve a website. I don’t get the connection. E-document management and website improvements are not totally unrelated, but they don’t seem to be the same thing.

    4. That Faribault may be making less than optimal use of Laserfiche doesn’t, for me, clinch the case that Northfield couldn’t do better — any more than Faribault should conclude from the bumpy surface of Orchard St here that potholes are not worth filling down there.

  12. Paul, in response to your 4 points:

    1. I’ve not argued that the expenditure is foolish or wasteful. I don’t think we know. I’m just questioning the decision process, including the source of the funds.

    2. Saying $23K is “only about 0.2% of the city budget” could be similarly said about virtually all the cuts being discussed by the Council tonight.

    If this purchase was on the agenda for tonight’s Council meeting, before or after the “cuts” agenda item, do you really think it would be approved by the Council on the basis that staff efficiency would be improved?

    3. I agree, e-document management is not really related to the public website but that’s how the City is pitching this (Goal #2) and paying for it. So that’s the basis for my objections.

    4. Faribault’s situation doesn’t clinch the case for me either but it seems worth investigating since they’re using the same website platform and have purchased the laserfiche package, too.

    And since there’s this huge unresolved question about what the problems are with our website (platform? training? staff skills?), it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the same problems will plague the laserfiche implementation, especially since Faribault seems to be having problems with it already.

  13. this is how useful KYMN’s indexed , archived Council meetings are (Well, I’m sup;poising this part is indexed;actually haven’t checked):
    Go to the Council meeting of the 25th, last Tuesday, and listen to Melissa Reeder’s explanation of the laserfiche document storage project, what their intentions are as to years to be stored in phase 1, and then after, and how they will be purchasing additional increments of the system as needed.

    This was item 2 on the Work session agenda: Communications…

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