Sunshine Still Blocked at Penn State
by WALTER BRASCH
STATE COLLEGE, Pa.–The Penn State Board of Trustees, still sanctimonious in its public moral outrage, continues to violate state law.
The Board held a private three hour meeting, Wednesday evening [July 25] to discuss the NCAA sanctions and the role university president Dr. Rodney Erickson played in accepting the sanctions.
Erickson, according to the Centre Daily Times, had “accepted the sanctions after discussing them with advisors and some trustees, but not the entire board.”
The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, which covers Penn State, requires that public agencies “shall give public notice of its first regular meeting of each calendar or fiscal year not less than three days in advance of the meeting and shall give public notice of the schedule of its remaining regular meetings.” For special meetings, the Sunshine Act requires an agency to give public notice at least 24 hours in advance. The law doesn’t require a public notice if an emergency meeting is declared, but there was no indication that anything the Board conducted in secret was an emergency, as defined under the Act. The Board gave no indication that the meeting was an executive session to discuss personnel issues or pending lawsuits.
The law also requires that, “Official action and deliberations by a quorum of the members of an agency shall take place at a meeting open to the public.” None of the few exceptions permitted in state law seems to apply to the reason for the latest meeting.
Following the meeting, the Board issued a PR-soaked statement that the meeting was for a “discussion,” and that there was no vote. Apparently, the Board believes that “discussions” without a vote aren’t covered by the Sunshine Act, so it was free to hold yet another unpublicized secret meeting. The Board, as has been so often the case, was wrong.
The Sunshine Act defines a meeting as “Any prearranged gathering of an agency which is attended or participated in by a quorum of the members of an agency held for the purpose of deliberating agency business or taking official action.” Discussions or the lack of a vote are not reasons for exemption. According to local media, at least 15 members of the 32-member board were in attendance at that meeting, with an unknown number possibly connected by telephone communications. A quorum is 13 members.
The Board, in the week prior to firing Coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier in November, had conducted at least two illegal meetings and, in violation of its own rules and state requirements, failed to give Paterno or Spanier due process in their abrupt termination.
The pattern of the Board’s haughty disregard of state law and failure to provide transparency didn’t begin with the disclosure of Jerry Sandusky’s actions on the university campus, but has been obvious to even the most casual observer for years.
On the day after the Board held its latest meeting, Auditor General Jack Wagner, who had been conducting an independent investigation, called a news conference to announce that “the culture at the highest level of this university must change.” Wagner, calling for better “transparency and accountability,” charged that the Board and administration “operate[s] in an isolated fashion without any public scrutiny on certain very important decisions impacting the university.” The Board, said Wagner “cannot operate in secrecy.”
He also recommended that Penn State—as well as the state-related University of Pittsburgh, and Lincoln and Temple universities, all of which take state funds—be subjected to the state’s Right-to-Know Law. The state’s 14 state-owned universities are already covered by the Right-to-Know Law.
Wagner also recommended the university president not be a member of the Board, citing the unusual situation of the president being an employee of the Board as well as a member of the governing body. He also recommended that the Governor, a voting member, become an ex-officio nonvoting member to avoid appearance of any conflicts of interest.
Gov. Tom Corbett has come under heavy opposition for what was at least a three year delay while he was attorney general in prosecuting Jerry Sandusky, although there was sufficient evidence to make an arrest; for taking about $600,000 in campaign donations from members of the Board of Sandusky’s Second Mile Foundation and those associated with the Foundation; for awarding a $3 million state grant to the Foundation; and then, after his election as governor and a Board trustee, not only failing to inform the Board about Sandusky but then using his political muscle to sway the Board into making personnel decisions. Corbett, a Republican, is also suspected of having a personal vendetta against Paterno, a Republican who refused to endorse him for governor and who did endorse Barack Obama for the presidency. When questioned about his role in the scandal, Corbett has either ignored questions or lashed out against reporters who asked for clarification.
Wagner, in a letter to the General Assembly, noted that formal recommendations would be made within 60 days.
In this case, the Pennsylvania legislature, as dysfunctional as it is bitterly partisan, should have little debate about making the state’s largest university more accountable to the people who support it.
[Dr. Brasch spent four decades as a journalist and university professor. He is the recipient of the lifetime achievement award from the Pennsylvania Press Club and the author of 17 books. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed novel, Before the First Snow.]