Friday, June 25, 2004

Senate bill opens Dickinson meetings

Centre Daily Times
(c) Copyright 2004, Centre Daily Times. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Senate bill opens Dickinson meetings

By Gwenn Miller

The state Senate unanimously passed a bill this week that would force the Penn State Dickinson School of Law's board of governors to open its meetings to the public. Senate Bill 1039 amends the definition of the word "agency" in the Sunshine Act, a law that requires public bodies to make certain meetings open to the public.

The board of governors has met several times in the past seven months to debate and decide the fate of the law school, but always behind closed doors. The state appellate court ruled 3-2 in April that the board could legally close its meetings.

It was at such a closed meeting that the governors voted earlier this month to study a plan that would split the law school into two campuses, with one in Carlisle and one in University Park.

The Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Hal Mowery, R-Lemoyne, a vocal opponent of any move of the law school from its original home in Carlisle, which is in his legislative district.

The bill would redefine "agency," subject to the Sunshine Act, to include the governing board of any nonprofit corporation which, by a mutually binding legal written agreement with a state-related institution of higher education, is granted supervisory or advisory powers over the school's degree programs.

The next stop for Senate Bill 1039 is the state House, but legislators are skeptical that they will vote on it before the current session ends. A spokesman for House Majority Leader Rep. Samuel Smith said the priority is passing the budget, and the House is not scheduled to take up Senate Bill 1039 this week.

Penn State lobbyist Rich DiEugenio worked with Sen. Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, to amend the language in the bill. Although the university believes it successfully argued its case for keeping the meetings closed in court, DiEugenio said it was obvious that Mowery had rallied enough support to pass the bill.

Therefore, the bill is worded so that it is limited to Dickinson's board of governors, he said, but is not unconstitutional because it does not single out the board.

Corman said he was opposed to the legislation, but didn't want to get into an "intramural" fight in the Senate so he helped revise the language.

"This was litigated, so why is state government getting involved?" Corman said.

He said in the end, he wants the board of governors to make a decision about the law school's future that will be in the best interests of the students.

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