By Lisa Hills
An important piece of legislation was unanimously approved recently by both the House and Senate, and has recently been signed into law by Gov. Dayton. S. F. 1770 — commonly known as the “Timberjay bill” — may not have captured many headlines, but its significance goes to the heart of government accountability.
The bill overturns an unfortunate ruling last fall from the Minnesota Supreme Court, and reaffirm that citizens have a right to information about private businesses that contract with government entities. The legislation is rooted in efforts by The Timberjay, a newspaper that serves Ely and Tower, to get information about a major school construction project.
Publisher Marshall Helmberger, concerned about costs and other troubling aspects of a project, asked the school district for certain details about the construction contracts. The district didn’t have these records, and so Helmberger went to the contractor, citing a provision in state law that requires public access to certain information held by a government contractor that shows how the contract is being performed.
But the contractor in this case, Fortune 500 company Johnson Controls, refused Helmberger’s request. The Timberjay then sued and won its case before the Minnesota Appeals Court, only to have the ruling overturned by the state Supreme Court.
Creators of the Timberjay bill seek to clarify the state’s Data Practices Act so there’s no question that the public has access to details showing how private companies are performing contracts with government agencies in cases where the agency fails to obtain all of the pertinent information from the contractor. There was a potential problem, however. Before giving final approval to the bill, the House added an amendment dealing with a separate data practices issue involving the state Department of Public Safety.
Apparently the Department doesn’t like the amendment, and may have been trying to persuade the governor to veto the whole bill. Such a move would have been extremely unfortunate, because the public benefits of the Timberjay bill itself far outweigh whatever minor issues the public safety amendment may entail.
In every community in the state you can find many examples of private companies doing business with government agencies. The Timberjay wrangle, at its core, epitomizes the everyday efforts of reporters and taxpayers to ensure that public business — in this case, the spending of billions of public dollars — is open to the scrutiny of citizens. The Timberjay bill was signed by Gov. Dayton so that this important goal can be secured.
Lisa Hills is the executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Association.