The Malheur Enterprise, a tiny newspaper in Vale, won a victory for all Oregonians this week, courtesy of Gov. Kate Brown. Brown intervened in a public records fight between the newspaper and the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board (PSRB), and the latter, rather than going to court, gave the newspaper what it sought.
The Enterprise requested the PSRB records of Anthony W. Montwheeler, who was found guilty except for insanity in the 1996 kidnapping of his then-wife, Rosa Carrasco, and son. Montwheeler was released from the state hospital in December, after announcing he’d been successfully faking mental illness all along.
In January Montwheeler allegedly kidnapped and murdered his third ex-wife, Annita Harmon, in Ontario. In an attempt to elude police, he killed a motorist, David Bates, in a collision. He is now being held in the Malheur County Jail, awaiting trial.
The case shows again just how ripe for reform the state’s public records law really is.
As things now stand, a public agency — in this case the PSRB, which oversees those who have successfully argued they are guilty except for insanity — that has been ordered to release records can either do so or go to court. PSRB sued.
Tuesday, Brown said the case highlighted a problem with the state’s open records law: Public agencies ordered to turn over records have no way to avoid complying except to sue whoever asked for the records in the first place. She has asked her staff to research a way to solve such problems short of a lawsuit.
The suit was a particular problem for the Enterprise, which has a circulation of under 2,000 and few resources to fight a lawsuit. It set up the Enterprise Defense Fund through the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association to help defray its expenses. Publisher Les Zaitz said Wednesday those who donated will be contacted; if they do not want their money returned, it will be used to create a new fund at ONPA, one aimed at helping the state’s small newspapers.
For now, the public remains at risk of being sued by a government agency over the release of public records. That’s wrong. Yet the Legislature, which would have to change the law, is well into a session that must wrap up by July 10. Unless the governor’s office moves quickly, it will be at least a year, perhaps two, before the law can be changed.