Proposed bill would force Delaware universities to be more transparent

DELAWARE — A bill introduced to the state Senate June 15 would require more transparency on the part of the Board of Trustees committees at the University of Delaware and Delaware State University.

During a Senate Education Committee meeting, Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, introduced SB 278, which would amend the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Under the proposed legislation, all Board of Trustees committees would be considered public bodies and subject to holding open meetings.

Sokola said he decided to sponsor the bill after he was approached by two professors at the University of Delaware who wanted the university to be more transparent.

Deni Galileo, a biology professor at UD, told The News Journal that the university invites two faculty members to its committee meetings but makes them leave before noteworthy topics are discussed.

Delaware and Pennsylvania are states with rare exemptions that give public universities immunity from completely adhering to FOIA laws. In 1976, Delaware’s state legislature approved a bill exempting the University of Delaware from open records and open meeting laws, with the exception of the Board of Trustees. Bills that would have potentially removed the universities’ exemption were introduced in 1997 and 2011 but were unsuccessful.

Sokola said he isn’t confident SB 278 will eventually become law, but he said he believes the bill has started a discussion about transparency and higher education. The 2016 legislative session ends June 30.

“It’s certainly a timely and important discussion to have at this point,” Sokola said.

John Flaherty, who lobbies for the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, said there is no logic to keeping the committee meetings closed.

“I think it’s time that at least part of (the Board of Trustees) is opened up,” Flaherty said. “It’s a small step and it’s a step in the right direction.”

Neither DSU nor UD agreed to comment on the proposed legislation.

Recently, there has been a slight push for higher education transparency in Delaware. In March 2015, Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark South, introduced HB 42 to the House Administration Committee. The bill would have removed universities’ FOIA exemption and fully applied open government law to UD and DSU. Kowalko said he supports SB 278 but doesn’t believe it goes far enough to make universities more transparent.

“The only answer is to make them no longer exempt,” Kowalko said.

He said HB 42 was based on the premise that universities get money from taxpayers and as a result should have to divulge how their funds are spent. HB 42 was tabled in committee, but Kowalko said he is optimistic about eventually getting the bill passed.

Kowalko sponsored a similar bill two years ago that would have removed the exemption and fully applied FOIA to UD and DSU; however, the legislation was rewritten to require universities to produce only records related to proposals or contracts that use public funds.

Gov. Jack Markell signed the bill into law in July 2014. The bill allowed the universities to remain largely exempt from open meetings and open records laws with the exception of Board of Trustee meetings.

The legislation was proposed in response to a secret agreement with a private company at UD. The university planned to build a power plant on one of its campuses and had rejected multiple records requests regarding the project, Kowalko told SPLC in July 2014. The project was ultimately terminated because it was deemed “not a good fit” for the campus.

SPLC staff writer Kaelynn Knoernschild can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318.

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter to receive a notification on Fridays about the week’s new articles.

Fill out my online form.