ST. PAUL – Gov. Mark Dayton has signed a bill that restores the right of the public and media to obtain details of public contracts and projects associated with them.
The measure, which was approved unanimously by the Minnesota Legislature, effectively reverses the impact of a state Supreme Court decision last November that ended a three-year legal battle between the Timberjay Newspapers and Johnson Controls Inc.
The court had found that the newspaper did not have a right to an architectural subcontract related to a $79 million school construction project because the contract between the school district and JCI failed to include state-mandated language advising JCI that it was subject, as a government contractor, to public information requests pertaining to the project.
The court’s decision was widely viewed as a misinterpretation of state law, and legislators quickly agreed to a revision in state law that clarifies that the law applies, even in cases where public contracts fail to include the required advisory.
Lisa Hills, executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said the bill ensures the ability for journalists and the public to adequately monitor how taxpayer money is spent.
Mark Anfinson. who drafted the legislation for MNA and helped shepherd the bill through the Legislature, said the Supreme Court’s ruling rejected almost 14 years of settled law and needed to be addressed.
“The ‘Timberjay bill’ was a major priority for MNA in the 2014 legislative session, aimed at fixing a serious problem caused by Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision in the Timberjay case,” said Anfinson.
Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger echoed those comments.
“This is as clear a message as our legislators and the governor could send that Minnesota believes in government transparency,” said Helmberger. “It’s not very often that every single member of the Legislature and the governor can agree on something and I’m very pleased that this was one such case. It shows that no matter which side of the fence you’re on, every sensible person understands the value in ensuring that the public and the media have complete access to the details of government contracting.”
“And, let’s face it, it’s pretty cool to have a law named after the Timberjay,” added Helmberger.
The Timberjay bill took a torturous path to approval when unrelated amendments threatened to undermine its support.
A public health data dispute was the first obstacle. That issue was resolved by an agreement to study the issue for a year to address some of the concerns by the health-care companies.
A data issue with the Department of Public Safety emerged later. Dayton vetoed a portion of the bill that would fund a legislative auditor’s study on how secure state systems are at guarding and transmitting data, including citizens’ personal information.
Although he stated that he has great respect for the legislative auditor’s office, Dayton said it would not be fiscally responsible to appropriate funds without articulating the costs involved in performing the additional duties.
Newspapers across the state supported the Timberjay bill’s passage, arguing that the value of the public access provisions far outweighed the importance of the other issues.
The legislation stemmed from the Timberjay’s efforts to obtain information on the St. Louis County School District’s restructuring project.
Helmberger, concerned about costs and other troubling aspects of the project to build and renovate schools, sought details about Architectural Resources Inc., one of the subcontractors on the project.
The district had not received a copy of the subcontract. General contractor, JCI, denied access based on its claim that its subcontract with ARI was proprietary. The Timberjay sued and won its case before the Appeals Court, but the ruling was overturned by the state Supreme Court.
In a split decision, the Supreme Court contended that because the district had not specifically stated contracts would be public, Johnson Controls was not required to turn over the requested documents.
The bill plugs that loophole by clarifying the law’s intent to make the contracts public, with or without an advisory.