The Times reviewed hundreds of pages of the Calumet Trustee's payrolls, audits, budgets and other spending documents covering 2001 to 2010 to prepare a series of stories to give readers an inside look at this often overlooked form of local government.
The request was for information in a digital format to take advantage of the greater speed and flexibility computer searches offer to analyze data.
Although township records are generated on computers to provide that same advantage to its employees, Calumet Township spokesman Stafford Garbutt said the township's policy is to provide the same information to the public as paper documents instead.
The township's vendor records were a hodgepodge of payments to businesses that provide services to the township and its assistance recipients, and reimbursements to employees for travel or training; in some cases, township employees are listed as vendors and about $2 million of apparent salaries are designated as vendor payments.
Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin said no township employee is paid as both a vendor and an employee.
Over a period of many weeks, The Times staff had to key into Open Office electronic spreadsheets the names of hundreds of employees and hundreds more business vendors, consultants and recipients of township donations, along with the dollar amounts paid every year for a decade, as well as township budget subtotals and totals and assistance amounts, to recreate what already exists and is easily available -- the digital files the township possesses but denies the public.
The Times then used Microsoft Excel and Access programs to analyze the data used in this series' stories.
Other local government agencies have followed the township's policy of responding to public records requests with paper documents, although Lake County government financial records are available in digital form.
Stephen Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, said state law permits government agencies to choose the form of public documents they must release, but legislation has been proposed to reverse that formula and give that choice to the person requesting the documents.
"That is something we recognize as an issue, the ability of a public agency to limit a requester to paper, as opposed to an Excel spreadsheet, (which) can serve as a barrier for the public to be able to get at the meaning of the records they have," Key said.