Board of Trustees

Ag candidate files suit against PSU board, Chairman Keith Masser, trustee Betsy Huber over contested election

Jess Stairs has not given up his protest of this year’s election of agricultural representatives to the Penn State board of trustees.

The former state representative from Westmoreland County was one of the candidates for the two available seats this year. The winners were board Chairman Keith Masser and past master of the Pennsylvania State Grange Betsy Huber.

But Stairs contested the victory, saying things went wrong in Venango County that could have changed the results.

In a complaint filed this month in Centre County Court, his attorney, Dean Piermattei of Harrisburg-based Rhoads and Sinon LLP, said the election results were skewed because three of the six delegates didn’t play by the rules.

The board includes six trustees elected by agricultural societies on a rolling basis.

According to the university’s charter, three delegates do the electing for each county. If more than one agricultural society opts to put forward delegates, all of those delegates will decide whose delegates will do the voting.

Stairs said that isn’t what happened in Venango County. There were six delegates, three from the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and three from the state Grange. Only the Grange ballots were cast, he claims, saying they “refused to caucus as required and instead confiscated the ballots and cast their votes.”

It might not seem like that big a deal, but according to Piermattei’s filing it was a close race. The final tally came in at 124 votes for Masser, 89 for Huber and 88 for Stairs, who said that any of the farm bureau delegates could have made a difference in the voting as they had all been committed to vote for him, and at the very least tying him with Huber.

Piermattei claims Stairs “verbally protested” the results to the judges of the election on the day it took place. Those judges were M. Abraham Harpster and Carl Shaffer, two of the other agricultural trustees. Shaffer is president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

Stairs wants Masser and Huber to be declared invalid board members and either to be installed in place of Huber or to have the Venango County elections redone with a caucus to decide the voting delegates.

He also asked for costs and fees associated with the suit.

“The university believes that Mr. Stairs’ allegations are without merit,” Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email. “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. Because this matter now is the subject of pending litigation, the university will have no further public comment.”

If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it first came up in July, when Stairs filed his intentions, asking to subpoena the three delegates who did vote — Barbara Gross, Glenn Gross and Rick King.

After a hearing, Judge Pamela Ruest upheld Stairs’ right to file his suit but quashed the subpoenas because they were requested before the complaint was filed.

A request for a protective order by the defense also was granted in August.

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