Court rules against Timberjay information request

Iron Range newsThe Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in a case with wide-reaching public information implications last week, declaring that a private contractor employed by an Iron Range school district did not have to divulge data to the Timberjay newspaper.

The Timberjay information request, led by its publisher Marshall Helmberger, sought more information about the multi-million dollar St. Louis County School District consolidation and expansion plan of 2010, and the contractor who designed it, Johnson Controls. The Supreme Court ruling was narrow, in that it said that the Timberjay information request would have been granted had the county schools properly written the contract to include a public information clause.

Helmberger was on Northern Community Radio this past Friday morning and said that it is now incumbent on newspapers and government watchdogs to ensure that contracts between government entities and private contractors include a public information clause.

When talking about local government in northern Minnesota, I have begun to refer to something I call the “consultant class.” Increasingly, governments and public bodies are turning to consultants to develop both special and routine aspects of day-to-day operations. These consultants function very much like employees of the government, but are not part of government. Many times, the consultants outlast the elected officials who hire them, making them part of the tapestry of the local political scene. It is as important for the public to be aware of these people and their actions as it is for them to be aware of their school boards, city councils and county boards.

Kudos to Helmberger for following through with this lawsuit. It did not yield the information he sought, but it does define the parameters of the public information battlefield of our times.

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