The Minnesota Court of Appeals backed a small-town newspaper group Tuesday in an open records case involving how units of government farm out work to contractors.
The appeals court ruled that a contract involving a major school construction and renovation project in the St. Louis County School District is public information, so the Ely-based Timberjay Newspapers are entitled to see it.
The contract was between the construction management firm Johnson Controls Inc., and subcontractor Architectural Resources Inc. The appeals court concluded that Johnson Controls performed a governmental function as defined by the state's Data Practices Act, so the contract it signed with Architectural Resources is public data.
The ruling reversed an earlier decision by an administrative law judge.
Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the newspapers, said it's an important decision because the appeals court rejected arguments that would have restricted public access to information about work that governments outsource to contractors. Instead, he said, the court stuck to a precedent it set nearly a decade ago. He said the decision "pretty well pulverized" Johnson Controls' arguments that the open records law should be interpreted narrowly in such cases.
"It's a good day for citizen accountability," Anfinson said.
But Marshall Helmberger, publisher and managing editor of the Timberjay Newspapers, said it could be years before he gets access to the information because Johnson Controls indicated earlier that it was prepared to fight all the way up to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Helmberger said he wants to examine the contract because the school district incurred a number of extra costs when problems, including code violations, came up during the $80 million project. He said Johnson Controls told the school board that provisions in the contract would make it difficult for the district to recoup those costs.
"I wanted to see some evidence of that," Helmberger said.
Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls issued a statement saying only that the company is reviewing the ruling and will evaluate its options.