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Ex Officio Trustee Falls Under Right to Know Law

Last week, the Commonwealth Court ruled 6-1 [PDF] that communications committed by ex officio members of the Penn State Board of Trustees fall under the Right-to-Know Law.

The case came before the Court when the state Office of Open Records denied requests made by Ryan Bagwell, a trustee candidate in 2012 and 2013, for access to communiqués of former state Education Secretary, Ronald Tomalis. The Secretary of Education is one of three Commonwealth executive department heads who serve as ex officio members of the Penn State Board of Trustees. Tomalis resigned from his position two months ago.

In August 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Education denied Bagwell’s request for Tomalis’s messages because Penn State does not fall under Pennsylvania’s sunshine laws and Tomalis was acting as an agent of the University, not as a state official. Bagwell argued that the Secretary serves on the Board of Trustees on the behalf of the Education Department, thus ex officio members of the Board fall under the Right-to-Know law.

While the Office of Open Records (OOR) sided with the Education Department, the Commonwealth Court overruled that Ronald Tomalis represented a state agency while on the Board of Trustees, and reversed the OOR’s decision. The Court sent the case back to the OOR so the office could make a second decision.

“The records were received by the Secretary pursuant to the Department’s role of supporting and influencing education at the state-related institution,” wrote Judge Robert Simpson for the majority.

Time will tell if anything substantial comes from Tomalis’ information, but it’s a victory for transparency nonetheless.

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About the Author

Doug Dooling, Jr.

I am a staff writer for Onward State. I graduated as a Nittany Lion with Honors in 2013. Now, I am back in Happy Valley to earn a degree at the Penn State Law. Outside of politics and government, my interests include college football, soccer, Irish history, and astronomy.


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