The Free Press, Mankato, MN


May 13, 2013

A watchdog carries on the fight

In journalism circles, the Timberjay is the little newspaper with lots of moxie.

This weekly newspaper Up North, in Ely, has established a tradition of fighting hard for the public’s right to know. That’s not a task to be taken lightly. It’s a big, expensive, time-consuming commitment for a newspaper to undertake a legal challenge.

One of The Timberjay’s recent battles was aired at a Minnesota Supreme Court hearing last week. This time the paper is taking on a corporation that is doing business with St. Louis County schools. Johnson Controls was hired to do construction and remodeling work in the district’s school buildings. The Timberjay editor-publisher tracked progress on the project and noticed some mistakes and added costs. So, not surprisingly, he wanted to know more.

And that’s when the brick walls were built to keep the newspaper away from the information it requested. Under the Data Practices Act, the newspaper figured because the work was being done for a public school district, then it should be able to look at a private company’s paperwork for the $78 million public project. After all, it’s tax dollars that pay for school projects.

The school district was supposed to track the project information but didn’t. The company did but refused to provide the information, claiming it as proprietary. The newspaper is fighting for the information through the courts. And like any case such as this, there may not be a lick of information that indicates any wrongdoing. But until the information is made public, no one knows.

And that’s why fights like this are important. Unless the media push for information thought to be public, the public won’t know if it has all the information it needs to ascertain whether the government is doing its job efficiently and ethically.

No one wants the governments to be messing up. But if watchdogs, such as The Timberjay, The Free Press and other community newspapers, don’t check, how will you know?

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