Board of Trustees

Candidate files intent to sue Penn State over trustees election

Jess Stairs
Jess Stairs

A former state representative who narrowly lost his bid for a seat on the Penn State board of trustees in May is alleging that the university mishandled the election, and he wants a do-over.

Jess Stairs filed a notice of intent to sue the university and winning candidates Thursday in Centre County Court.

Stairs, who spent more than 30 years in the state House, ran for one of the seats selected by Pennsylvania’s agricultural societies and lost by a single vote to incumbent Betsy Huber. Board President Keith Masser also won re-election.

Masser and Huber are named defendants, along with the university, in Stairs’ filing.

His Harrisburg attorney, Dean Piermattei, said Stairs previously appealed the election results to the university but came away with the “impression that Penn State has accepted the results and is unwilling to do anything to change” them.

Piermattei said that left his client with no alternative but to file suit. Stairs seeks to have the election process repeated.

“At least have it done fairly,” Piermattei said. “If not, then we’ll look at what other relief is available.”

Penn State released a statement Tuesday saying the allegations are without merit but would not comment further because the matter is now the subject of pending litigation.

“The university is very disappointed that Mr. Stairs has chosen this course of action and that it will be required to devote university resources to defending this litigation,” the prepared statement said.

At issue is how votes made by agriculture delegates from Venango County were counted.

Agriculture trustees are elected by three delegates from each county who are picked by organized agricultural societies. 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 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 won because Huber won by only one vote, according to the argument.

Others have complained that the group favoring Stairs tried to game the system. The voters were friends and family of the candidate and weren’t Venango County residents, a source with knowledge of the vote said.

It isn’t against the rules for a delegate to live in one county and represent another in a vote. But the source said the system is based on “integrity and honesty,” and that such moves are discouraged.

The board of trustees voted unanimously in May, the day after the election, to certify the results, meaning Masser and Huber can rejoin the board for another three-year term.

Stairs filed a letter of protest after the vote, but an initial investigation found no complaints from trustees and others overseeing the election, nor from the Venango County delegates in question, trustee Abraham Harpster, who served as an election judge, said at the May meeting.