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Student Fee Board Steering Committee To Discuss Closed Meetings

The Student Fee Board’s Steering Committee will meet at 5 p.m. Friday to discuss handbook changes, including provisions about holding closed meetings. UPUA President Katie Jordan said the meeting will likely be held in the UPUA office, 314 HUB.

The University Park Student Fee Board met Monday to tie up loose ends and talk about procedures moving forward. The Board decided its funded units should be allowed an 8 percent carry-over from year to year, which is the standard currently adhered to by the student governments, or $70,000 (whichever is smaller).

Graduate and Professional Student Association President Matt Krott made the point that there is some value in allowing the units to carry over a small amount, as they can be more responsible without feeling like they must spend every dollar for fear of losing it.

The Board then discussed potential changes to the Student Fee Board’s handbook, which the Steering Committee will consider this weekend. The Steering Committee consists of members from both the University Park and Commonwealth Student Fee Boards.

The Commonwealth Student Fee Board apparently also has changes to propose, but Jordan did not specify what these changes relate to. After the Steering Committee decides on any potential changes, the two boards will have the chance to review them for at least 10 days before they’re brought before each board’s membership for approval.

“It is not consistent with the handbook, so we want to make sure that we’re changing that for the future,” Jordan said. “And like I said, growing pains — it wasn’t meant to be anything to hide transparency, just was honestly an oversight and a slip-up.”

Krott added he thinks the Board must evaluate if holding closed deliberation meetings was a good decision and think critically about it, “because somebody put that in the handbook with the thought of ‘That’s what the fee board was going to be,’ and then we decided that it wasn’t what we wanted to do with it.”

The general consensus of the board was that the overwhelming majority of what was discussed in the closed meetings was not confidential, compared to a very small portion that was.

“At least 90 percent of what we discussed in the deliberation sessions was not sensitive,” Krott said, “and I think that it sends kind of the wrong message to close it all when it’s not really necessary.”

Members discussed structuring any potential closed meetings structured similar to Penn State’s Board of Trustees, where public meetings are sometimes followed by executive session. In reality, the Board of Trustees follows Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act and the Student Fee Board probably should, too.

Many agencies and boards around the state are required to hold open meetings in accordance with Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, which was adopted in 1998. Here’s how the Sunshine Act defines an “Agency” or essentially the organizations it holds jurisdiction over:

The body, and all committees thereof authorized by the body to take official action or render advice on matters of agency business, of all the following: the General Assembly, the executive branch of the government of this Commonwealth, including the Governor’s Cabinet when meeting on official policymaking business, any board, council, authority or commission of the Commonwealth or of any political subdivision of the Commonwealth or any State, municipal, township or school authority, school board, school governing body, commission, the boards of trustees of all State-aided colleges and universities, the councils of trustees of all State-owned colleges and universities, the boards of trustees of all State-related universities and all community colleges or similar organizations created by or pursuant to a statute which declares in substance that the organization performs or has for its purpose the performance of an essential governmental function and through the joint action of its members exercises governmental authority and takes official action. The term shall include the governing board of any nonprofit corporation which by a mutually binding legal written agreement with a community college, or State-aided, State-owned or State-related institution of higher education is granted legally enforceable supervisory and advisory powers regarding the degree programs of the institution of higher education. The term does not include a caucus or a meeting of an ethics committee created under rules of the Senate or House of Representatives.

In this sense, the Student Fee Board could fall under the Sunshine Act in its capacity rendering advice to Penn State’s Board of Trustees, which of course is a board of trustees of a State-related university.

The Student Fee Board provides a fee-level recommendation to the Board of Trustees each year. However, it’s worth noting the Fee Board technically renders advice to Penn State President Eric Barron, who then makes the official recommendation to the Board of Trustees. It can’t be said for sure whether the Student Fee Board could be adjudicated based on the Sunshine Act.

Let’s assume for the purposes of this post that the Student Fee Board would be considered an Agency under the Sunshine Act. The Student Fee Board’s closed deliberation meetings (at least as they were held this year) would be illegal.

The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association has prepared some documents for members of the media to learn more about the law and its implications. Here’s what the association says about closing meetings for personnel matters:

The first reason, commonly called the “personnel exception,” is one of the two most frequently cited as justification for holding an executive session. This reason applies whenever an agency meets to discuss a personnel action (hiring, firing, promoting, etc.) regarding a specific person who is a current or prospective employee or official of the agency.

The “personnel exception” does not cover discussions that relate to a general class of public officers or employees or any other matter that does not affect a specific person or persons. For example, by its terms the Act does not authorize an agency to hold a private discussion about creating new jobs or budgeting for general personnel expenses.

To be clear, the Student Fee Board isn’t discussing specific staffers by name, but rather the budgeting for creating positions, according to Jordan.

“Some of [the requesting units], for example, Student Legal Services, requested an increase specifically for like a lawyer, so you have to basically consider if you’re not funding them or if you’re partially funding them, you’re partially funding a salary. Or like Campus Rec, they had said that they didn’t fully staff their units last year but they’re planning to do that this year, so that’s why they…request an increase, stuff like that,” Jordan said. “A lot of times, too, there’s questions around the presentations and we often have to follow up to other people’s higher-ups, and that can be uncomfortable to discuss publicly too, I think. So I think that kind of stuff is that we didn’t really feel was necessary to like air out, and it’s not anything that would benefit from being public, if that makes sense.”

We’ll continue to provide updates on these talks as they continue, including coverage of this weekend’s Steering Committee meeting.

About the Author

Elissa Hill

Elissa is a junior public relations major and the managing editor of Onward State. She is from Punxsutawney, PA [insert corny Bill Murray joke here] and considers herself an expert on all things ice cream. Send questions and comments via e-mail ([email protected]) and follow her on Twitter (@ElissaKHill) for more corny jokes.

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