The dream of a paperless office has yet to become a reality for many businesses. But the Santa Rosa City Council may soon be taking a big step toward paperless decision-making.

The seven members of the City Council recently received new Apple iPads to help them do their jobs, such as scheduling meetings and emailing constituents.

Soon, they may begin using the popular tablet computers during council meetings to review staff reports and other documents, scrapping the need for paper packets that can run to hundreds of pages.

On Tuesday, the council will consider revising its policy governing the use of taxpayer-funded electronic devices, including whether it wants to take the next step and go paperless.

Mayor Scott Bartley said software installed on their iPads should make it easier for council members to review reports and other information relevant to their deliberations.

"I was a little bit of a skeptic, but this is a slick little program," Bartley said. "I'm real impressed with it. It's going to make life a lot easier."

Currently, employees in the city manager's office compile about 20 complete copies of the council agenda for each meeting, usually about three a month. The packets typically includes minutes of prior meetings, staff reports, proposed contracts, environmental reports, letters from the public and correspondence between the council and other legislative bodies.

Bartley said that since he's been mayor, he's gotten an up-close view of the work the City Hall staff puts into assembling the packets. "I said, 'Holy cow, we're killing a lot of trees,' " he said.

The cost of assembling the paper packets is $10,000 per year. The seven iPads cost $4,800, plus $3,200 for maintenance and data plans, according to city staff.

In addition to being more environmentally friendly, the iPads are city property and can be used for years. When their terms are up, council members will turn in the devices for use by new council members, just as they do with city-issued cellphones and laptops.

Numerous federal, state and local agencies are switching to electronic delivery of legislative agenda packets, city officials said. The software the city will use, called iLegislate, will allow council members to download the packet before the meeting for their review.

The city already makes much, but not all, of the information related to decisions at upcoming meetings available to the public on the city website several days before most council meetings. Paper copies of the reports will continue to be available for public review at the meetings, the mayor said.

The idea of council members fiddling with their iPads during public hearings raises several concerns that the city hopes to address through its new policy.

Because the tablets are wireless devices, council members can receive emails during meetings from members of the public, fellow council members, or others interested in the outcome of council decisions.

Councilman Gary Wysocky said he agrees that "paperless is the way to go," but said, "We want to make sure that the public sees that there is no communication during the meeting from the dais."

The policy contains prohibitions against such practices. It requires that iPads and similar devices not be used in such a way as to violate the state's open public meeting laws. For example, the policy reminds council members not to hit the "reply all" button on emails to avoid all seven council members communicating with each other in violation of the law.

Council members will be allowed to send or receive only those emails "regarding emergencies, such as family emergencies" on the devices during meetings. Wysocky said he wants to hear more about how such a prohibition will be enforced.

Council members also cannot use iPads to consider information not part of the hearing record, or to use them "so as to result in inattention to the record and/or proceedings before the legislative body."

Bartley said it is important that council members not "interact with this little machine" instead of engaging with the public or the staff members making presentations. But he also notes the risk of distraction and inattention is there with or without the devices.

"I've sat up there when my council colleagues are balancing their checkbooks," Bartley said.

There are several other general restrictions on the use of the iPads. They cannot be used for campaign-related activities or for "financial gain or advantage to the user or a loss to the city."

They can be used for personal use, but only if that use is "lawful, incidental and minimal."

Council members also are required to retain all communications on the iPads that might be public records, such as emails received from the public or responses to them, according to the proposed policy. .