Asking delegates to reveal how they voted in a hotly contested board of trustees election threatens to undermine Penn State’s ballot process and voters’ privacy rights, university attorneys argued in a court filing Tuesday.
The legal memo is the latest from Penn State lawyers in the ongoing court battle over whether a former state representative should be able conduct depositions of voters who participated in the May election.
Jess Stairs ran for a seat representing agricultural societies on the board and lost by a single vote. Last month, he filed a notice of intent to sue the university, alleging three delegates from Venango County had voted improperly and cost him the election.
Keith Masser and Betsy Huber retained seats on the board. They also are named defendants in the suit.
Harrisburg attorney Dean Piermattei, who is representing Stairs, subpoenaed the delegates in question, but Penn State lawyers shot back asking for an emergency motion to stop the depositions, and the matter remains tied up in court.
In the latest filing, Penn State attorneys wrote that the election of trustees by agricultural societies has been conducted by secret ballot for decades and that the process ensures the integrity of future elections.
“The university, in agricultural trustees elections, relies on the sanctity of the secret ballot to ensure the will of the voters is accurately expressed without the threat of reprisal,” the lawyers wrote. “If (Stairs) is permitted to inquire as to how certain individuals voted, it will undermine the university secret ballot process in this and future elections.”
Agriculture trustees are elected by three delegates who are chosen by organized agricultural societies from each county. If more than three delegates for a county are present, they must caucus to determine how the county’s three votes will be cast, according to the rules.
Piermattei previously said two separate groups of three delegates representing Venango County arrived to vote. One group favored Huber and another Stairs. Instead of caucusing, he said, one group took control of the vote and went for Huber.
If the groups had caucused and remained divided, the votes would have been nullified and Stairs would have passed Huber, who won by one vote, according to the argument.
Penn State has previously said the allegations are without merit, but the university said it would not comment further because of the pending litigation.
In the filing, university lawyers disputed claims from Stairs that Penn State acknowledged the process was flawed.
“At the appropriate time, the (Penn State) will present evidence that if any procedural irregularities and improprieties occurred during the election, those actions were undertaken by Mr. Stairs and did not affect the outcome of the election,” the attorneys wrote.
Attorneys for both sides argued last week about whether the case should proceed in front of Centre County Judge Pamela Ruest. She didn’t rule from the bench. A decision was expected to come within two weeks.
Penn State argued in a filing that the case is improperly filed in civil court. They said the suit should be brought in orphans court, because the university is a nonprofit institution and the suit deals with a decision made by the board of trustees.
Piermattei said Penn State is simply trying to delay the case. Stairs should be on the board now, Piermattei argued, and the longer the case is delayed the more prejudiced his client is.