Sunday, February 22, 2004

Legislature Adds Its Two Cents Worth

Copyright (c) 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Bill would clarify Sunshine Act ; Change would mandate open meetings at public universities

Of Our Carlisle Bureau

A state lawmaker has proposed a bill that would end questions about whether meetings of The Dickinson School of Law board of governors must be held in public. Sen. Hal Mowery, R-Camp Hill, said his bill would amend the state open records law -- the Sunshine Act -- to specifically open meetings of boards affiliated with public universities.

"I just think it should be something that should be done in the open, and everybody should have the opportunity to observe," he said.

A Cumberland County judge already ruled that the meetings must be open but the board is appealing the decision in Commonwealth Court. The law school is affiliated with Penn State University, but the Dickinson board argued that its meetings can be held behind closed doors because it is partly independent from Penn State.

Last year, Dickinson's dean proposed moving the school from Carlisle to University Park in State College. The board's discussions have all been private.

Earlier this month, The Patriot-News and The Sentinel of Carlisle convinced Cumberland Judge Edward E. Guido that the board's talks should be open to the public.

The media played a key role in that decision, Mowery said.

"Things could have already been taken care of and for all purposes, it could have been up in State College by now," Mowery said.

Guido said his decision was based on the board's role as a committee of the trustees of Penn State, which is a publicly funded school.

Corinna Wilson, general counsel and vice president of the Pennsylvania Newspapers Association, said Mowery's proposal appears to target only those types of committees, rather than a broad range of organizations.

Patriot-News attorney Craig J. Staudenmaier said that although it has been ruled that the Sunshine Act applies to the Dickinson board, an amendment would prevent ongoing court battles.

"It would certainly eliminate time and expense in the future, and the public wouldn't have to wrestle with the issue," he said.

Mowery said people have been frustrated by the Dickinson board's insistence on keeping meetings closed when its decisions will affect many in the area.

"Sen. Mowery is taking a much-needed and much-appreciated step for the citizens of the commonwealth," Wilson said.

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