Every once in a while I like to make a call to my favorite rabble-rousing editor from the Iron Range to see if he’s still rousing rabble.
So I called Marshall Helmberger, who with his wife, Jodi Summit, runs the Timberjay, a feisty newspaper that covers Tower, Ely and Cook, Minn., writing stories that run the gamut from corporate shenanigans to moose-related news.
Helmberger was in an especially ebullient mood. His garden was in, the mosquitoes were out, but most important, Helmberger had just learned that the work of his tiny newspaper had helped make the state a better place.
Two of the reasons for that were evident on the newspaper’s Web page (www.timberjay.com).
First there was a story about Gov. Mark Dayton signing the so-called Timberjay bill, which should create more government transparency.
The Legislature in essence clarified that a news organization or even a member of the public has the right to information on contracts between a government body and a private contractor.
Helmberger has been fighting to get an architectural subcontract related to a $79 million bonding bill between the St. Louis County school board and Johnson Controls Inc. for three years, eventually ending up at the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The court determined the newspaper did not have a right to JCI’s contract because that contract did not include state-mandated language saying the information would be public. So the Legislature and governor tweaked the law.
“Obviously, the Legislature made it pretty clear that they feel contracts like the one we were seeking should be public data,” Helmberger wrote to me. “This law was passed in direct response to our case and the Supreme Court’s ruling on it. So, overall, I’m pretty optimistic that this bodes well for openness, at least for the foreseeable future.”
Then, on Friday, Helmberger got more news supporting his publication’s work.
The Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) ruled that the school district misinformed voters on the tax implications of a 2009 bonding referendum in brochures and letters, just as the Timberjay had contended.
The district misled the public on the tax implications of a yes vote, and presented overly dire speculation on the impact of a no vote, Helmberger said. In essence, the district was running a campaign for the referendum, and didn’t disclose its expenses as such, as required by law.
“It became a campaign finance case, that was our hook [and] we had to hold them responsible,” Helmberger said.
Helmberger said that “the big underlying issue was that the district had essentially lied to its own voters to pass a referendum. It’s probably the biggest case of public corruption in St. Louis County in some time.”
“We were the paper that broke this whole story and we have reported on it relentlessly for five years,” Helmberger said with pride. “Every claim we made has now been upheld by the OAH panel.”
The complainants in the case were Stephen Abrahamson, the mayor of Tower, and Tim Kotzian, the chair of the Coalition for Community Schools.
The Timberjay’s zeal for chasing investigative stories is nearly unheard of in small towns anymore. But it has had numerous targets over the years, earning prestigious awards for public service journalism.
Helmberger and Summit live off the grid in a solar-powered cabin in the woods, where they grow their own vegetables and hunt for dinner. They never studied or practiced journalism until Helmberger tried it as a part-time reporter.
He took to the craft, and eventually bought the newspaper.
“It’s been a great week, it’s been a great month, but there’s more to come,” Helmberger said. “Now we have to see if anybody broke any criminal laws.”
I asked Helmberger if he celebrated his victories.
“Yeah, I wrote a ripsnorting editorial!” he said. “The one I’d been waiting on for five years. What else would a curmudgeon do?”