The Timberjay, a scrappy newspaper in Ely, is tussling to obtain documents related to school-construction projects in environmentally-aware northeastern Minnesota. The paper’s target is Johnson Controls, a conglomerate that contracted to build two schools in the far-flung St. Louis County school district, Minnesota’s largest (geographically speaking).
The newspaper seeks a copy of a subcontract Johnson Controls made with Architectural Resources, Inc., a northeastern Minnesota architectural and engineering firm. State documents suggest the Timberjay wants information about how much it will cost to operate water towers and water treatment facilities related to the new schools.
Johnson Controls refused to turn over the documents, claiming Minnesota’s open-records law did not require disclosure. Last month, an administrative law judge agreed and dismissed the Timberjay’s lawsuit. But earlier this month, a chief administrative law judge reversed the ruling, characterizing it as a “clear material error” on the judge’s part.
The key issue is whether Johnson Controls performed a “government function” for the school district. If so, it needs to turn over the documents so the newspaper can write about what it will cost taxpayers to operate the schools.
The latest ruling went the newspaper’s way, and the Duluth News Tribune reported today that a hearing is forthcoming because the chief judge rejected an appeal. Timberjay publisher and editor Marshall Helmberger said he fears Johnson Controls is trying to run up legal bills, while Johnson Controls told the newspaper it is simply trying to protect its subcontractor’s “confidential and propriety information.”
Both sides have good arguments, but it’s hard to argue that citizens don’t have a right to know what it will cost to operate their schools.