In a sweeping ruling Tuesday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals said government contractors are subject to state open records laws.

The ruling means that Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls must reveal to Timberjay Newspapers of Tower, Minn., details of its subcontract with a Minnesota architectural firm to build schools in St. Louis County. However, the unanimous decision's reach could be curtailed if it is appealed to the state Supreme Court.

"It is an important case and will apply to every single state contract," said Mark Anfinson, attorney for Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger. "The drama remains whether, because of that importance, the Supreme Court will conclude that it's worthy of its attention."

Helmberger was concerned about flaws he noticed in an $80 million project involving construction and renovation of several St. Louis County schools, whose district contracted with Johnson Controls for the project. In 2010 he requested a copy of Johnson's subcontract with Duluth-based Architectural Resources Inc. under the state's Data Practices Act. Johnson refused Helmberger's request, maintaining that the contract contained proprietary secrets and was not subject to open records laws.

Under the law, private residents or businesses contracting with the government must comply with the Data Practices Act "as if it were a government entity."

In March 2011, the Minnesota Department of Administration sided with Helmberger, but an administrative law judge threw out the request because the subcontract "did not involve the performance of a governmental function."

The Appeals Court disagreed, arguing that the planning, design and construction of five public schools falls under state laws that mandate the duty of a school district to "furnish school facilities" to children -- including constructing and renovating buildings.

Attorneys for the contractors have not yet decided whether to petition the state Supreme Court to hear the case.

"The Data Practices Act presents some unique challenges for businesses and the courts, and we just need to take those into consideration on deciding whether to appeal," said Steve Lindemann, attorney for Duluth-based Architectural Resources. David Lillehaug, an attorney for Johnson Controls, referred questions to the company's spokeswoman, who did not immediately respond.

Helmberger said Tuesday that he made the request because he was concerned that no one -- not even the school district -- was tracking what was happening on the biggest expenditure in the district's history.

While looking into the issue, he said, he discovered mistakes that were pushing up costs, and he began to raise questions. Eventually it became more than simply gaining access to contracts, she said.

"We realized there was a significant issue at stake here," he said.

His next step, he said, will be to request more documents for the project, which he criticized as wasteful.

"What I'm trying to do is get some accountability," he said.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921