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Editorial: Scanning the Record

Creative disruption is just one of many management concepts that we don’t quite grasp, but it certainly appears to us that Hartford officials have succeeded in turning the disruption caused by the temporary relocation of the town offices to a good and creative purpose.

As staff writer Jordan Cuddemi reported last week, the recent move from the municipal building, which is soon to undergo extensive year-long renovations, to new quarters at 35 Railroad Row in White River Junction has provided the occasion and the impetus for the town to scan thousands of documents into digital form.

“It provided us with a perfect segue or real time motivation to do it,” Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg told Cuddemi. “It was clear to us that if we could get it done prior to a physical move that it would save us money and effort in moving everything out and back.”

Thus two part-time employees and the town’s information technology officer have spent the past several months scanning about two-thirds of the documents, while the remainder were sent out to a document management firm.

The result is that within a year to 18 months, roughly 900,000 records are expected to be available electronically in a database that can be accessed by the public and is searchable by keyword. Everything from property records to building permits to fire, police and public works department records will be available through public-access computers at the town offices. Eventually, the town hopes to make the database available online through its municipal website.

According to Rieseberg, the $250,000 project has been paid for not with property tax money, but with filing and recording fees — a revenue stream that could support management of the database in the future as it is constantly updated. When the project is completed, he says, Hartford will be in the forefront of digitization in Vermont.

If it works as advertised, this is a genuinely big deal and not only because it promotes public convenience. Knowledge is power in the world we live in today: Those who know how to acquire it and how to use it are truly empowered in a way ordinary people have not previously been. Municipal records may seem at first glance to be pretty dry, but surprisingly often they have a tale to tell if one knows what to look for and how to find it.

One can easily imagine a day in the future when a member of the public will be able to not only look up the agenda for an upcoming board meeting but also quickly access all the documents relevant to the agenda items and the decisions to be made, and then be able to participate in the meeting as an informed as well as interested observer. Who knows? This might even encourage more members of the public to run for office or seek seats on various boards and commissions.

It also seems possible that an electronic database of town records could eventually provide the historian and the researcher with a treasure trove of documents relevant to academic or policy inquiry.

And finally, gaining access to source documents is one of the ways in which public and press can hold government at all levels accountable for its actions and decisions.