Newspapers may be struggling but there’s no “woe-is-me” attitude evident in the actions of Marshall Helmberger, publisher of the Timberjay Newspapers of Tower. The small newspaper covers the area around Tower and Ely and when puzzling news of change orders and code violations surfaced in a $78 million project to renovate St. Louis County Schools Helmberger wanted to know why.
Using the Minnesota Data Practices Act, he requested a copy of the subcontracting agreement between Johnson Controls, the builder and Architectural Resources Inc. The Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls objected and an administrative law judge backed the company up.
On Oct. 9, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that Johnson Controls performed a governmental function and its contract was public data — open to citizens and journalists alike to peruse.
Helmberger should be commended for his willingness to legally challenge the big company and hold them accountable. Legal battles are expensive and his fight benefits everyone who is interested in transparency in government — not just his own newspaper. His fight is not over, however, because the firm had earlier indicated it could fight the battle all the way up to the Minnesota Supreme Court. More legal bills are likely to pile up for the newspaper.
In this business climate it would have been easy for the Timberjay publisher to conclude that he just didn’t have the time or resources to launch such a daunting legal challenge to a big company. By deciding to hold the company accountable to state law he struck a blow for oversight of government actions for all Minnesota citizens.