Appeals Court rules for Minnesota newspaper in debate over construction recordsThe Minnesota Court of Appeals unanimously ruled in favor of the Tower Timberjay on Tuesday in the small newspaper’s continuing quest to obtain records from Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls for work the company did in helping to build new facilities for the St. Louis County school district.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals unanimously ruled in favor of the Tower Timberjay on Tuesday in the small newspaper’s continuing quest to obtain records from Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls for work the company did in helping to build new facilities for the St. Louis County school district.
The dispute goes back to late 2010, when the newspaper requested to view the contracts between Johnson Controls and Architectural Resources Inc., which did the architectural work for some of the nearly $80 million in school buildings for the district.
The state’s Data Practice Act says that when a private employer contracts with a government entity, all data “created, collected, received, stored, used or disseminated” is under the subject of the state’s open-records laws, and thus public.
Johnson Controls has argued that the records contain “confidential and proprietary information.”
When Johnson Controls refused to provide the contract, the Timberjay, which has a circulation of about 3,500, sought and won an opinion in its favor from a state agency tasked with mediating public records disputes.
Johnson Controls, which has 162,000 employees and recorded $40.8 billion in sales in 2011, still refused to turn over the records, and the Timberjay sued.
An administrative law judge sided with Johnson Controls in January. In reversing that decision on Tuesday, the Appeals Court said Johnson Controls was performing “a governmental function” when it “provided project management, construction, and architectural services for the district,” making its records subject to the open-records law.
The Timberjay’s editor, Marshall Helmberger, said he will continue to seek the records he first requested in 2010, as well as additional records that he believes could show exaggerated claims of cost savings from Johnson Controls.
The Timberjay’s attorney, Twin Cities media attorney Mark Anfinson, said the Appeals Court’s opinion also could have a broader impact on the access to state records.
“The existing law was somewhat ambiguous,” he said. “This removes that ambiguity and empowers citizens and news organizations to obtain access to government records. That equals accountability.”
In a response to the News Tribune’s request for comment, Monica Zimmer, Johnson Control’s director of global public relations said in a statement: “We are currently reviewing the ruling made today by the Minnesota Court of Appeals and will be evaluating our options.”