…is an excuse”:
A well deserved self administrated back pat from the Timberjay Newspaper:
Here comes the sun?
Legislators deserve credit for efforts to restore openness to government contractors
Every year, advocates of government openness celebrate Sunshine Week, set this year for March 16-22. It’s a time when many of us in the media tout the myriad benefits to the public that result from keeping government records open and available to the public.
While it’s easy, and often legitimate, to criticize the media for its at times overwhelming attention to the titillating and the sensational “often at the expense of real news” there are still those reporters willing and eager to do the hard work of the public watchdog. Yet without access to government records, it is almost impossible for even the most intrepid of reporters to perform their critical role in our democracy.
As regular readers of the Timberjay well know, gaining access to public information isn’t always as easy as one might expect given laws that require access in most cases. We’ve seen time after time instances where public officials were slow to respond to information requests, or simply violated the law by refusing to provide records that are clearly public. And as our longstanding legal case against Johnson Controls, Inc., demonstrates, when public officials fail to do their duty in drafting appropriate and legally-compliant consulting and construction contracts, it can let contractors off the hook and leave the public in the dark about key details of multi-million-dollar government projects.
In overturning a unanimous decision by the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court in Helmberger v. Johnson Controls, Inc., carved out a potential loophole that could exempt billions of dollars worth of public contracts annually from scrutiny.
Fortunately, Minnesota legislators on both sides of the aisle are now working to plug that loophole. Legislation, dubbed the Timberjay bill, that advanced unanimously in both House and Senate committees last week would essentially erase the Supreme Court’s recent decision in our case, and protect the public’s right to know.
The new legislation would still require governments doing business with private companies to include a notice in their contracts that any documents or other information they develop as part of that contract is subject to an open records request. But if, as in the case of the St. Louis County School District and JCI, that provision was never included in the contract, the law would apply nonetheless.
That was clearly the intent of legislators back in 1999, when they amended the state’s public records law to include government contractors. The state Department of Administration and lower courts had agreed with that view from the beginning.
The Supreme Court is the only judicial body that has taken the somewhat strange position that if a governmental unit neglects to inform a contractor of their legal requirements, their legal requirements don’t apply. At least as far as the Supreme Court is concerned, ignorance of the law is an excuse.
Fortunately, it appears few in the Legislature share that view, and with any luck, Minnesota will soon have a new law on the books that ensures that the sun will continue to shine on public construction projects. That’s worth our attention and appreciation during Sunshine Week.