ST. PAUL – Legislation dubbed the “Timberjay” bill, that clarifies the state’s public information law, was passed unanimously in both the Minnesota House and Senate in the final days of the …
ST. PAUL – Legislation dubbed the “Timberjay” bill, that clarifies the state’s public information law, was passed unanimously in both the Minnesota House and Senate in the final days of the legislative session late last week. The bill, which still must be signed by the governor, eliminates any doubt whether the public has access to contracts between private companies and government entities.
Legislators approved the measure in response to last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Timberjay v. Johnson Controls, which many legislators saw as an erroneous decision.
“It was gratifying to see the overwhelming and bipartisan support for the bill,” said Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger. “Legislators made it clear that they support the principle of openness in government contracting, and they deserve much credit for that.”
But the bill faces one more hurdle before it becomes law, according to the Minnesota Newspaper Association, which drafted the bill and shepherded it through the state Legislature.
A late amendment in the House related to the release of public data by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety might cause Governor Mark Dayton to veto the bill, according to Mark Anfinson, attorney for the MNA.
“It’s a major asterisk,” said Anfinson, who said the bill, which was fairly straightforward initially, became more complicated as other data issues were piggybacked to the legislation. “It’s almost outlandish how this has evolved,” said Anfinson.
The first hint of trouble came when health-care companies objected to language that would open their records to public scrutiny.
State Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, who supported the bill, said the dispute resulted in nearly four hours of debate. “It was lawyer debating lawyer on the House floor,” he said.
The dispute was resolved by an agreement to study the issue for a year to address some of the concerns by the health-care companies.
Anfinson said he’s hoping the governor will look at the core issue, which is restoring the level of accountability and transparency that existed prior to the Supreme Court’s decision.
“The value of the Timberjay provisions far outweigh the importance of the other issues,” he said.
Helmberger agrees and said the Legislature can always address the concerns of the Department of Public Safety in its next session if need be.
Gov. Dayton has 14 days from the day the bill was sent to his desk, which was May 16, to decide whether to veto the measure.
The legislation is rooted in the legal efforts of the Timberjay newspaper’s attempt 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, Johnson Controls Inc., 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.
“Legislators no doubt thought they had made that clear already, but the Supreme Court managed to discern ambiguity in language that other state agencies and the courts had found pretty straightforward,” Helmberger said “We’re back where we started, which means public contracts are public. And that’s the way it should be.”
Although the bill grew out of single court case filed by the Timberjay against JCI, the ramifications will reverberate throughout the state. There are numerous examples of private companies doing business with government. Anfinson said the Timberjay bill is a significant step toward ensuring that government operates in a transparent and accountable way, and the spending of public dollars is open to the scrutiny of taxpayers.