Board of Trustees Wrap-Up: A New Wrinkle to Public Comment
For the past year, since the Board of Trustees added a public comment session to its agenda, the drill has been the same. Speakers spoke. Trustees listened. When the speakers criticized the board for its handling of the Sandusky scandal, some portion of the audience clapped or cheered.
Friday’s public comment session, however, was different.
After the second speaker—a tandem of two faculty members, Maria Truglio and Brian Curran, who said that although Penn State had suspended the $100/month surcharge for employees who didn’t get a biometric screening and fill out an online health survey, they were still concerned about what happens next—board chair Keith Masser ’73 said that David Gray, senior vice president for finance and business, would respond to the comments.
This caused a stir. Not once since the board added a public comment agenda item—up to 10 speakers, each allotted three minutes—had trustees done anything but sit and listen. Twice, however, during Friday’s meeting, Masser directed someone to respond to the comments—Gray to the professors, and governance chair Keith Eckel to former state Sen. Robert Jubelirer ’59, ’62g, who was practically shouting by the end of his three minutes, during which he accused the board of not being transparent.
Masser had indicated he was considering doing this during Thursday’s meeting of the Outreach, Development, and Community Relations Committee. Public comment at board meetings wasn’t on the published agenda for that committee meeting, but chair Joel Myers ’61, ’63g, ’71g brought up the topic at the end, wondering if there was any reason to change anything about the current format. Reduce the number of speakers from 10 to seven or five? Change the three-minute time limit? Direct speakers to committee meetings, where the topics might be more appropriate or there might be a way to engage in more of a discussion?
This sparked a passionate discussion not just about public comment, but about how the board should respond to criticism. I can’t recount it all, but here are a few highlights—condensed—that may help put Friday’s public comment session into perspective:
Committee member Ted Brown ’68: “The general consensus of people who speak at meetings is they wish there were more opportunities, not less. … And we always have three no-shows, and there ends up being seven instead of 10 anyway. … People who are professional and to the point, not making personal attacks—that’s totally inappropriate—either here or at the general meeting, I support more of that, not less.”
Jalon Alexander, president of the Council of Commonwealth Student Governments and the student representative to the outreach committee: “If you make it appear you’re taking away opportunities to speak and you’re shifting to a committee meeting, people might read that as not being transparent. It is transparent in that you’re having people come to the committees, but you’re not going to get as many people to come as they would to a normal public session.”
Trustee Barbara Doran ’75, who’s not an outreach committee member but was sitting in the audience, on the purpose of public comment: “It’s for trustees to hear issues of concern for whatever constituency wants to show up. I do think we need a mechanism for feedback to answer questions.”
Myers: “Some statements are just wrong and should be countered.”
Vice chair Paul Silvis ’06g, who was in the audience: “We really have to keep the end in mind. What is it that we are trying to accomplish? If people have legitimate problems and concerns—like the gas line—that’s fine. If people are just there to have the cameras capture them berating the university or the board, that’s a different intent.”
Committee member Ryan McCombie ’70 Lib: “We need to remember, too, this is as much a pressure release valve now as it is a public comment. Like it or not, it is right now. We need to recognize that, too.”
Myers: “So maybe limit the grievances to one time a year or something.”
Brown: “I don’t like any kind of censorship. What does make sense, though, is that if someone has the same issue twice in a row, if they got an answer from us the first time they spoke, they wouldn’t say, ‘I’m here again, you ignored me, I got no answer, you did nothing, so I’m here again.’”
Masser: “Twice in a row asking us to resign. Just tell them twice in a row, ‘No, I’m not going to resign.’ I mean, that’s what I’m talking about.”
Alexander, the student: “I think we can underestimate the ability we have as a group to set appropriate, adequate standards for behavior. I think it looks really bad if we don’t have any guidelines for showing our distaste for disrespectful comments. I’m not saying censor people, but I think there is a really big silent majority that doesn’t like these comments, either.”
McCombie, on putting any new procedures into place: “This is so vulnerable right now, if we start putting trip wires in front of people … I don’t think that’s a good idea right now. If we do things, we have to understand that someday this is going to be over, and whatever we put in place between now and then, we have to be happy with it because we’ve got to live with it after that. Have what I call the long horizon view: In five years, are you going to be happy?”
Jubelirer, who was in the audience, stood up to speak when Myers asked if anyone wanted to address the committee. He was angry: “I am absolutely in disbelief of what I’ve heard: You can’t shut people down.” What he said Thursday was similar to what he said as one of five speakers Friday in public comment: That he had helped to write Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law, and that he believed strongly that the board was not committed to transparency and openness.
Other news from Friday’s meeting:
—Aside from public comment, the meeting had more of a feel of a pre-Sandusky scandal meeting, with most of the time taken up by various financial reports. The board approved a budget for 2014–15 that asks the state for a 5 percent increase in its appropriation. Find more details in this Penn State news release. For information on the five-year capital plan that was presented, click here for the news release and here for the website, which will be updated periodically.
—The board’s conflict of interest policy, one of the governance reforms passed in May, was in evidence. Two trustees, Linda Brodsky Strumpf ’69 and Ira Lubert ’73, recused themselves from votes in which they had a financial stake; both left the room when the board voted. It was also noted that Karen Bretherick Peetz ’77, who did not attend the full board meeting, had disclosed that her company, Bank of New York Mellon, had a business relationship with a company involved in a transaction, and although neither she nor the committee considered it a conflict, she did not participate in the committee discussion or vote.
—While I was in the meeting, a March for Truth protest was going on outside The Penn Stater Conference Center. You can catch up with coverage from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review here.
—I checked in with Frank Guadagnino ’78, a Reed Smith attorney assisting Penn State on governance issues, to clarify the details of the compensation committee discussed Thursday in the governance committee meeting.
The trustees have historically had an ad-hoc group called the compensation council, consisting of the chair, vice chair, immediate past chair, and chair of the finance and business committee. This group essentially approves compensation that is decided upon during the negotiation process, and it brings the president’s compensation before the board for approval. A review by Susan Basso, vice president for human resources, indicated the need for a more formal and structured process, so the governance committee has proposed the formation of a standing committee on compensation.
This requires a change in the bylaws, which in turn requires a 30-day notice before a board vote. There will be a vote at the November board meeting.
Lori Shontz, senior editor
Entry filed under: Board of Trustees, Controversy. Tags: Barbara Doran, budget, compensation committee, Jalon Alexander, Joel Myers, Keith Masser, Paul Silvis, Robert Jubelirer, Ryan McCombie, state appropriation, Ted Brown.