A Mahwah smartphone App that debuted about a week ago sparked a political battle between the township’s council members and mayor Thursday night over how the App came to Mahwah, how it’s run, and if it’s needed.
Lily Liu, one of the founders of PublicStuff, gave a presentation at a council meeting Thursday about ‘Mahwah Delivers,’ a new smartphone and web application that allows residents to electronically submit requests to the township’s government via the App or online, and government officials to respond.
PublicStuff is the digital communication and software company that built and maintains the App.
According to Liu’s presentation, the App, similar versions of which are being used by about 200 towns and cities across the country, is customizable, and can also include widgets and links to information that users can access.
The system also tracks the progress on requests made. So, if a resident uses the App to take a photo of and describe a pothole that he feels needs to be fixed or graffiti that she feels should be cleaned up, the request is routed through PublicStuff software to the appropriate department head in the township.
Liu walked the council through the interface township employees could use to view requests made by residents, electronically respond to the requests, and archive the data about the issue, and how it was fixed.
According to details released at the meeting, Mayor Bill Laforet signed a purchase order for the system over the summer. The township paid $2,875 for the ‘Mahwah Delivers’ App and its online counterpart to be live from August 1 to December 31 of this year, according to township officials.
Laforet said he and the Mahwah police chief have spent the past few months building up customized content in the App, a process which he said is ongoing.
Since it debuted a week ago, ‘Mahwah Delivers’ has been downloaded 200 times, and used to make 24 service requests in the township.
Council members questioned the necessity and cost of the software system, and why they did not play a larger role in deciding to acquire it.
“Two people who don’t allocate the money in this town made this decision,” Councilwoman Lisa DiGiulio said, referring to the mayor and police chief.
“When a great idea comes up…bring it to the council,” she told the mayor during the meeting. “I want to respect you but you have to respect us. The line of communication was broken here.”
Councilman John Roth expressed the same concern, saying the council was, “entirely and totally excluded,” from the decision to purchase the software and the process of implementing it.
“I think that’s wrong,” he said.
Councilman Steve Sbarra expressed concerns about the cost of the system, which Laforet said will be an estimated $6 to $7,000 for a full year.
“I’m not so sure that this is totally needed,” Sbarra said.
“I’m concerned about spending [taxpayer] money without really knowing what it’s going to cost.”
Digiulio added, “I don’t know why we need this [system].”
Councilmen Roth and Roy Larson questioned why the site's two overall administrators are the mayor and police chief.
"I don't understand why the police chief is involved," Larson said.
Laforet said that he and Chief Jim Batelli built up the back end of the App and widgets on it, mostly on volunteered time. He said the setup will likely continue through the end of December, when he anticipates the full build out of the App to be complete.
At that point, administrative access, "can be turned over to anyone in the township," Laforet said.
Councilmembers called the arrangement “inappropriate.”
“I don’t know what this is turning into,” Laforet said. “This was not done in an underhanded way.”
The mayor argued that the acquisition of the software developed from the PD’s implementation of the Nixle text message alert system, and other emergency notification and communication systems used during Hurricane Sandy.
“We saw that there was a need in this community to increase communication,” both from township officials to residents, and the other way around, Laforet said.
He added that it was designed to be a tool to increase “transparency and accountability,” and called it a form of “responsive government.”
In a statement Friday morning, Batelli said he first found out about PublicStuff while at a convention showcasing new tools for law enforcement and other government agencies, and was, "impressed with what it could provide to the community."
"What concerns me is the council seems less concerned with the service it provides to our residents and how to integrate it into the community more concerned with who set the program up," Batelli said.
"I have extensive contact with the community and many residents welcome technology to improve how we function."
Council President Harry Williams concluded the conversation at Thursday's meeting by saying the council will monitor the system over the next few months.
The council will need to vote to decide whether or not to fund renewing the service in 2014.