Penn State

James Higgins Smith reaches agreement with Penn State Alumni Association over ballot access

The Penn State Alumni Association and the man who wants to be on its governing body arrived in court Wednesday and left with an agreement that changed little.

James Higgins Smith filed a suit in Centre County Court in March, asking a judge to direct his name to be placed on the ballot for the alumni council election. Smith was one of several prospective candidates for the 10 open positions who was left off the ballot when it was announced in January.

PSAA responded, denying any wrongdoing but agreeing to put Smith and another candidate, Elizabeth Ann Morgan, on the ballot.

That was a month ago, so why were they still going to court?

In part, because Smith wanted something enforceable.

Attorney Rodney Beard told President Judge Thomas King Kistler that he wanted assurances that nothing would happen to damage his client’s chances in the election.

“They could send out a picture with a mustache on it and there would be nothing he could do,” Beard said. “Something else could happen between now and (the election).”

Association attorney Michael O’Mara bristled at the idea.

“The suggestion that he has been disparaged is incorrect,” O’Mara said, while arguing that the whole case was moot in light of the association’s concession.

In the end, the two sides came to an agreement that included language covering the rest of the election process, with the association agreeing to keep Smith and Morgan’s treatment in line with all over candidates and to provide results of the election within days of their tabulation.

What did prove to be a sticking point was the question of bylaws.

Smith wanted them to abide by the rules in place when he filed his suit. The bylaws were changed a month later by the alumni council, including a provision that would make anyone suing the association ineligible to hold office.

The association refused to budge on reverting to the prior bylaws, but Smith was adamant that the new rules infringed on his ability to proceed.

Beard said that, in the event Smith is elected, the provision would prevent him from doing his job if he becomes privy to new information, wanting to preserve the possibility of filing suit against the association at a later date.

“We are squarely in the realm of hypotheticals,” O’Mara said.

Kistler agreed.

“Isn’t that like coming to the dinner party and suing the host?” he asked.

Kistler declined to take any action on that possibility, calling it beyond the scope of the filed complaint.

“We got as much as we could expect,” Smith said afterward.

Executive Director Roger Williams said he was “satisfied” with the decision and reiterated statements he made earlier categorically denying that the association would ever renege on its agreement to put the two candidates on the ballot once the offer was extended.

For Williams, what it really came down to was a question of whether a Pennsylvania nonprofit has the right to make decisions without interference.

It was the second time in two days that the alumni association had been in court to defend that idea. On Tuesday, they were there opposite four Penn State trustees denied spots on the ballot, again using the new bylaws as the crux of the argument.

“Now we just have to wait for a decision on the alumni four,” Smith said.

The trustees’ case was cited several times Wednesday, which played like a sequel to the previous day’s hearing, with the same judge and attorneys present.

The alumni council election is slated to take place May 12-31.

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