It was a strange case. Nearly a year ago an incident involving a former Nampa, Idaho man in Malheur County kicked off a string of events that eventually led to Oregon suing a small weekly newspaper in Vale.
The man, Anthony Montwheeler, is accused of aggravated murder, assault and kidnapping connected to a January incident outside of Ontario. He is accused of kidnapping and stabbing to death his ex-wife. Montwheeler is also accused of killing a Vale man and injuring his wife when he crashed into their vehicle as he fled from police.
The small weekly, the Malheur Enterprise, followed the story down a twisted path, eventually learning that the deaths occurred just one month after the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board released Montwheeler from its control after 20 years. The board is designed to supervise individuals who successfully asserted the insanity defense to a criminal charge. Montwheeler had done just that in 1996 in relation to a Baker City incident where he was convicted of kidnapping his first wife and son.
The small newspaper submitted a petition to the Oregon attorney general regarding its files on Montwheeler. Instead of complying with the attorney general, the review board — backed by huge amounts of taxpayer dollars — sued the Enterprise to keep its records secret.
Eventually, Gov. Kate Brown stepped in and forced the agency to obey the attorney general’s order. It was a small, off-the-grid battle regarding access by Oregonians to public records, but it isn’t an isolated case. In fact, across the nation the ability of the citizenry to secure access to public records is constantly under attack.
None of that would be especially surprising or cause for alarm if we lived under a different form of government. Yet we exist inside a democracy. Which means taxpayers have every right to documents that concerns how we are governed and — in the Montwheeler case — our collective security.
Government, by its very nature, tends to be secretive. That is why the founders created specific elements in the Bill of Rights. They wanted to ensure that voters always carried the ability to be an arbitrator regarding good government. Unless it is a classified military project, the reasons to keep information that concerns taxpayers hidden are, for the most part, ill-advised.
Good government works when the people are involved, when there is an efficient conduit of communication between those who govern and those who are governed.
When a government agency seeks to duck its responsibility to be accountable to the people democracy loses. The fight to keep the doors of government open is not one that can be won or lost. Instead it is a struggle that must never stop.