High Court Considers Whether Business Contract Is Private

Anfinson in front of court

By Danielle Killey

The state Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in a case both sides say could have a significant impact on public data access.

The case came before Minnesota’s highest court more than two years after Timberjay newspapers of Tower requested the details of a subcontract Johnson Controls had with Architectural Resources for construction work on St. Louis County schools.

Timberjay attorney Mark Anfinson said Monday the court needs to keep data access laws simple and clear to ensure citizens can get public information.

“If you don’t allow the public a simple rule, if you don’t give public officials a fairly simple rule, what have we accomplished?” Anfinson said.

Attorneys for Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls and subcontractor Architectural Resources, with offices in Hibbing and Duluth, argued their contract was between two private parties and not subject to the state’s Data Practices Act.

Johnson Controls has refused to give the subcontract to Timberjay editor Marshall Helmberger. The company said Architectural Resources did not perform any government functions, so was not subject to the request, and that the contract could contain proprietary information.

“This decision has far-reaching implications…” Architectural Resources attorney Steve Lindemann said Monday. “This would be a sea change in how things are done.”

The newspaper wanted to look into added costs from original estimates and issues such as potential code violations.

The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the newspaper after the case originally was dismissed by an administrative law judge, but Johnson Controls petitioned the state Supreme Court.

A business contracting with the government is subject to the Data Practices Act as if it were a government entity. But attorneys argued before the Supreme Court over whether the architectural firm’s work fell under the scope of government work.

“The Legislature didn’t say every contract the government signs is public information,” Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said, referring to the Data Practices Act. She said the information is public if the contract is for a service or work normally done by the government.

“Ultimately the question here is what is a government function?” Justice Alan Page said.

Court decisions generally are released about three to five months after oral arguments.

The justices heard Monday’s case before an audience of more than 600 Roseville Area High School students.