The word “public” can mean different things.
Sometimes it means that things are done in the eye of the people. Sometimes it means that the people are the ones doing something.
At Penn State board of trustees meetings, the public comment portion has changed over time. It’s changing again this week.
In a five-paragraph release on the Penn State website about the upcoming meetings set for Thursday and Friday, two lines in the middle caught some attention.
“The public comment period will no longer be live streamed or recorded. People will continue to have the opportunity to address the board face-to-face with their comments and concerns about topics on the meeting agenda, but the live streaming portion is being discontinued,” the release said.
It’s been a rambling journey for the public comment portion of the meeting. It first appeared on the agendas in September 2012, a time when alumni and public sentiment was hot after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, the former football defensive coordinator’s June conviction and the July announcement of unprecedented sanctions against the university. At that time, public comment was held during the meeting, between the president’s report and the committee updates.
In November 2012, it was moved behind the committee reports, just before adjournment.
It stayed there until January 2015, when it was moved again, this time before the trustees public meeting even started, happening behind closed doors at the end of the Friday morning executive session. To keep the “public” in public comment, however, the trustees met in one room of the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center while the public sat in special seating in a room next door in front of a screen where the commenters were shown delivering their statements.
In February, it changed once more, moving to 8 a.m., the beginning of that executive session.
According to Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers, this is a decision that was made in September by the board leadership. Trustees were informed at that time.
“The public comment opportunity to address the entire board face to face on topics related to the board agenda continues,” she said. “Although we are eliminating the live stream portion of public comment, the board will record the sessions and post comments that are in compliance with the board’s Standing Orders.”
The problem, Power said, was those people who weren’t following the rules.
“Unfortunately, individuals have frequently misrepresented their purpose with the intent to disrupt the agenda in violation of board rules — which explains the decision to eliminate the live feed,” she said.
Over the past year or so, several of the small number of people selected to comment at the meeting did go off-topic from their stated reasons to address the board. Others also disregarded the board’s admonition that the forum was not an opportunity to levy personal charges or attacks at trustees, administration or other individuals.
But not all of the trustees say they knew of the whole decision.
In an email to board chairman Ira Lubert, alumni-elected trustee Anthony Lubrano said he didn’t know the live streaming and recording were both being discontinued, calling the decision “very, very bad policy.”
“The Penn State board of trustees has been in desperate need of true reform for at least the past five years. Sadly, we don’t appear to have the courage to make the necessary changes to the composition of the board to achieve that much needed reform,” Lubrano told the Centre Daily Times.
Powers pointed to the overall open nature of the two-day trustees meetings.
“All board meetings are open to the public and televised. The committee meetings are open to the public as well. The media covers the meetings. So, the public is fully and openly engaged in board matters,” she said.
The trustees meet Thursday for committee meetings and in full on Friday, when executive session will be held in the morning and the public portion of the meeting will be conducted in the afternoon.