Closed-door talks spur law change

PENNSYLVANIA –A bill modifying the state’s Sunshine Act, introduced in response to closed talks between Dickinson School of Law and Penn State University, quickly passed the state senate in June.

The bill modifies the term “agency” in the state’s Sunshine Laws to include nonprofit corporations created by universities that have control over academic programs.

State Senator Hal Mowery wrote the bill after he realized the conversations and debates between Dickinson and Penn State “would not be happening in public,” said Alan Berlin, the senator’s executive director. “So we wanted to rectify that.”

The schools merged in 2000. When the schools merged, the law school’s board of trustees became a nonprofit corporation. Nonprofit bodies are exempt from the state Sunshine Law.

The Boards of Governors for the two schools met in November 2003 to discuss whether to move the law school from its campus in Carlisle, Pa., to the Penn State campus in State College.

Dickinson is “right smack dab in the center of his district and is key to the economic vitality of central Pennsylvania,” so the meetings were of great concern to Mowery, Berlin said.

“The decision about the future site and mission of the law school is immensely critical for the students and the community, and the board of governors cannot be allowed to weigh it or to cut a deal behind closed doors,” Mowery said in a news release. “This is about responsibility and accountability.”

The bill passed unanimously in the House and Senate in less than four weeks, a period Berlin called “very fast.”

Berlin said some schools expressed concern that the bill would make fundraising and other foundations open to the public, but the bill is narrow enough to exclude them. Only nonprofit corporations formed with a public school and granted significant control over academic programs of the school are affected.

The Carlisle Sentinel filed a lawsuit against the school in November to force the meetings open. The case eventually made its way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis.

After Mowery’s law passed, the school filed a motion for mootness, since the meetings were now open. The Sentinel responded that the lawsuit was arguing for the release of minutes and tapes from meetings held before the law passed.

Niles Benn, attorney for The Sentinel, said the Supreme Court dismissed the case four days before arguments, saying the case was “not fit for argument.” The Commonwealth Court decided 3-2 to keep the meetings closed.

The debate on whether the law school will remain in Carlisle or move to State College continues. In August, the governing board declined to vote on Penn State President Graham B. Spanier’s suggestion to create two campuses.