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The controversy surrounding Vice President Mike Pence using a private email account to conduct state business when he was Indiana governor, somewhat reminiscent of Hillary Clinton using a private server to conduct her own state business, is all about public access to government business. 

This being Sunshine Week, a time for an especially sharp focus on public access to the public's business, that case is worth remembering.

When Pence's attorneys turned over his emails for archiving, they gave 13 boxes of printouts to sort through. Why paper? Why not turn over electronic forms of the data that could be searched more quickly, more easily and more inexpensively?

We are in the information age, when data are kept in digital format and not primarily on paper.

When I was a Boy Scout, Troop 429 recycled punch cards that had been used at a local factory. We made money for the troop by hauling drawer after drawer of those cards to the local paper mill. 

But who uses punch cards anymore? Transferring data is as simple as burning a DVD or putting it on a flash drive or, better yet, using Dropbox, Google Drive or any of a number of similar services.

So why should members of the public, or archivists, have to get paper copies instead of in their original digital format?

There has been a long tussle over government records, with some of the bureaucrats who create them not wanting to share their work product with the public they represent. That's just wrong. That's the bureaucrats forgetting they serve the public, not the other way around.

Then there's the cost of accessing those records. Even at a nickel a page, a lengthy document or series of documents can quickly get too expensive for the average person. 

The utility of those documents should be considered, too. It's a lot easier to sort and analyze data already in digital form than for a citizen to have to go back and recreate a spreadsheet — most likely the original form for the data in the first place.

The Indiana General Assembly is considering a plan to charge search fees for public records requests that take more than two hours to fulfill. Pence vetoed this legislation when he was governor.

The Hoosier State Press Association is in favor of this legislation, realizing that lengthy searches to comply with public records requests take time, and therefore cost the government (and taxpayers) money.

The smart approach is to abandon the shotgun approach — give me all your records on this very broad topic — and use a rifle approach instead. Target a more narrow range of records and pursuing additional requests, if necessary, based on what you find from the initial search. That saves the government money, and it makes the citizen's search less burdensome, too.

Visualize the bulk of 13 boxes of paper records compared to a small flash drive, then remember it all boils down to this: These are public records, meaning they belong to the public. Make those records more easily accessible to the public who paid for them.

Porter/LaPorte Editor Doug Ross can be reached at (219) 548-4360 or Doug.Ross@nwi.com. Follow him at www.facebook.com/doug.ross1 and on Twitter @nwi_DougRoss. The opinions are the writer's.


Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.