REGIONAL - The Minnesota Newspaper Association has honored Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger for the newspaper’s ongoing legal fight to enforce the state’s government records laws against Johnson Controls, Inc.
Helmberger was named a “Friend of Minnesota Newspapers” by the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s board of directors in a ceremony held last Thursday at the MNA’s annual convention, in Bloomington.
The prestigious award was recognition of the Timberjay’s continuing fight to obtain documents and subcontracts related to JCI’s work on the St. Louis County School District’s school facilities project. The Timberjay first requested an architectural subcontract and other documents back in March, 2011. JCI and its attorney, former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug, have refused to comply with the request, claiming that the company was not engaged in a governmental function when school officials retained JCI to design and build new and renovated schools. The state Court of Appeals sided unanimously with the Timberjay in a ruling issued in November 2012. JCI has since appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case.
In a speech accepting the award, Helmberger told more than 500 assembled editors, publishers and reporters from around the state, that the stakes are high as the case moves to the Supreme Court.
“We believe the Supreme Court will ultimately side with us, because failure to do so would be utterly devastating to the notion of openness in government,” said Helmberger. “Each year, governmental bodies across the state collectively spend billions of taxpayer dollars on construction projects. To tell the public that the details of these projects can now be withheld from them is unimaginable.”
Helmberger also offered thanks to MNA attorney Mark Anfinson, who has represented the Timberjay without charge. “Without Mark, it likely wouldn’t have been possible for us to take on a Fortune 500 company like Johnson Controls. From the beginning, JCI’s attorney, David Lillehaug, has made it clear that their strategy was to bury us in legal expenses,” said Helmberger.
Helmberger also urged reporters and editors around the state to be on alert when companies like JCI make big promises of operational savings, without the data to back it up.
“I don’t have time to go into everything JCI did in our district, or in Duluth, or elsewhere but it’s eye-popping,” said Helmberger. “And local newspapers can make a big difference. Just ask Mike Jacobson in Paynesville. He helped spread the word in his community and it saved his school district from a real fleecing.”
The Friend of Minnesota Newspapers award is presented annually by the MNA to recognize outstanding contributions to newspapers in Minnesota.