TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Public records can open doors — and show you who’s opening which doors

State law makes government “records” subject to public inspection, and for most people that conjures up the image of stacks of manila-filed paper documents. But anything that captures information in any form can be a record — from the videotape in a surveillance camera to the audio of a 911 emergency call. It is the journalist’s challenge to think broadly about every way in which agencies might be memorializing knowledge, and with technological advances, those ways are constantly multiplying.

Inventive news-hounds have begun figuring out that the electronic data trail left by the keycards that open office doors can constitute a revealing public record of the comings and goings of government officials.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used key-card records to raise questions about whether well-paid members of a state utility-regulating board were showing up for their full-time-salaried jobs on a full-time basis. While the trail left by such records may not be conclusively precise, it can be instructive as part of a broader portrait of how frequently public officials are AWOL. This might be a particularly fruitful inquiry for colleges with globe-trotting administrators prone to racking up big travel bills at public expense.

The key (and yes, that’s a pun) to this and to all public-records requests is to remember that state sunshine laws typically do not require government agencies to create new studies, reports or compilations that don’t already exist. A request to an agency to create a spreadsheet of all of Commissioner Gordon’s comings and goings during the last six months may be legitimately denied, but the underlying raw data — in whatever form the agency keeps and uses it — should be accessible upon request.