Minnesota Supreme Court Hears Open Records Case

Updated: 05/06/2013 11:22 AM KSTP.com By: Jennie Olson

A case before the Minnesota Supreme Court has broad implications on whether documents held by a private company should be made public if the work the firm is doing is funded by taxpayers.
    
Johnson Controls, Inc., of Milwaukee, is managing a $79 million construction project for St. Louis County schools. Johnson Controls hired a subcontractor, Architectural Resources Inc., of Hibbing. The companies have refused to release their business contract to Timberjay Newspaper, which sued to get access to the document under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.
    
Timberjay editor Marshall Helmberger said examining the contract could help the district determine whether it could recover any of cost overruns.
    
"There were a significant number of architectural problems - things that had to go back and be redone through the change order process because there were designs that were not up to state code," he said. "Unfortunately, this ended up increasing the cost of the project."
    
Johnson Controls argues the contract contains trade secrets and is not subject to the state's open records law.
    
Attorney Dean Thomson, who has represented the Minnesota Associated General Contractors, said state law clearly states that government officials have to provide access to certain information, but it's different when a private company holds the information.
    
"You have a lot of proprietary data that one contractor wouldn't want his competitors to know," he said. "If contractor X has proprietary pricing in his contract, what would prevent contractor Y from filing a data practices act request and saying I want to see all the pricing that contractor x has? We'd get into all sorts of arguments about what has to be produced and what doesn't have to be produced. Currently, we don't have that."
    
Thomson expects that if the Supreme Court rules in the newspaper's favor, it would change the way private contractors work with public entities, Minnesota Public Radio News reported.
    
"It's a tremendous cost to organize information with the idea that it may need to be produced at a moment's notice," he said. "You'll get less construction for your public dollar because part of that dollar will be spent trying to keep track of documents so they can be produced."
    
Last fall, the Minnesota Court of Appeals concluded that Johnson Controls performed a governmental function, so project records are public data under state law.
    
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