Tevlin: Timberjay's battle with Johnson Controls reverberates beyond Ely

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 5, 2013 - 6:55 AM

On Monday, 600 students will cram into the auditorium at Roseville Area High School to listen to a classic David vs. Goliath tale.

As part of an educational outreach program, the Minnesota Supreme Court will hear a case at the school. This particular case, which pits the tiny Timberjay newspaper against a giant corporation, Johnson Controls, won’t exactly play like an episode of “Law and Order.”

But here’s why it’s important, not only to students, but to everybody who cares about transparency and open government.

The Timberjay, a newspaper that serves the area around Ely and Tower, is seeking access to the architectural contract and other information about a $78 million school project in Northern Minnesota. The school district was legally required to keep the records, but failed to do so. The company, JCI, has refused to turn over the documents, citing proprietary information.

At the heart of the case is whether the public should be able to see how private companies with government contracts are spending our money. The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act mandates that all work done by the government is open to public scrutiny. But such work is increasingly being contracted out to private firms or nonprofits, so exempting those contractors from oversight would rip a huge hole in the Data Practices Act.

If you live in the Twin Cities and don’t think this case applies to you because it’s Up North, you’d be wrong. Star Tribune reporter Eric Roper is currently trying to get data showing annual revenue generated by concerts at Target Center from AEG, the company that manages the publicly owned and subsidized arena. AEG has refused, arguing that it doesn’t fall under the provision that companies who “provide a government function” must provide information to the public. It wants to see how the Timberjay case shakes out.

The Timberjay case began when its publisher, Marshall Helmberger, began to notice troubling mistakes and added costs in a project to build and renovate St. Louis County schools. Helmberger also noticed code violations, change orders and simple billing miscues, which he called “kindergarten stuff.”

Helmberger acknowledges that he has no idea if there are any improprieties on the project, but he insists he has the right to find out.

Helmberger is not your typical small-town publisher and editor. He worked for the Forest Service before he stumbled into journalism, writing part-time for the paper. When the Timberjay came up for sale, he and his wife, Jodi Summit, bought it.

Newspapers that size rarely pursue such investigative work, but the Timberjay has made a reputation of holding public officials accountable.

“People up here had the same concerns about the project,” said Helmberger. “Our readers are definitely following the case.”

Helmberger is also glad the arguments will be held in a high school. “It’s really a good case for students to hear,” he said. “It’s important that they see that the media has to have a right to have oversight of the government, and the only way you are going to maintain that is to have access to information.”

So far, both the Minnesota commissioner of administration and the Minnesota Court of Appeals have ruled in favor of the Timberjay. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case at JCI’s request.

Mark Anfinson, an attorney with the Minnesota Newspaper Association who is presenting the case, said it’s important not to muddy up the law.

“The core of this case is the importance of keeping laws designed to benefit the public as simple and clear as possible so people can use those laws,” said Anfinson.

Rich Neumeister, an “ordinary citizen” who advocates for personal privacy and open government, sat on a panel that amended the data practices act in 2000 to include private businesses working for the government. He says this case is only unimportant if you believe the government never makes a mistake.

“It’s important because someone has to make sure there is no hanky-panky and no screw-ups,” said Neumeister. He pointed to something students could understand: Parents can currently find out the names and records of bus drivers working for contractors, “so you can know who is picking up your kids every morning.”

That might not be possible if the law is restricted.

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