Thursday, November 17, 2011

One Small Win for Accountable Government--And One Big Loss

Those of us who push for open and accountable government scored a small victory last night, as the Oshkosh School Board rejected the creation of an "investigatory panel" to look into allegations of open meetings law violations by member Ben Schneider II.  The discussion centered on nearly all of the points that I raised in yesterday's "Two Cents"--mainly that Schneider broke no laws by telling the media about Oaklawn Elementary discussions that did not fit the definition of proper closed session material and that there are various avenues of actual legal recourse for alleged rules violations.

Board President John Lemberger tried to cover his butt for this naked intimidation tactic by claiming that he merely wanted to "start a discussion about the Board speaking with one voice after a decision is made".  Well, as Board President he could have had such a discussion by placing on the agenda "Discussion about the Board speaking with one voice after a decision is made"--rather than consulting with the district's legal counsel (at taxpayer expense) to see if he could convene a Kangaroo Court packed with his own lackeys.

Unfortunately, the open government movement suffered a major blow as reporters trying to hold Penn State officials accountable for their actions in the alleged coverup of sexual abuse of children on its campus found out the University is exempt from open records laws.  In 2008, the Pennsylvania Legislature granted Penn State the exemption--meaning reporters will not be allowed to request internal memos, emails, phone records and schedules from those accused of keeping Jerry Sandusky's alleged actions under wraps for at least 13-years.

Care to guess who was the biggest proponent of granting Penn State that exemption from public scrutiny required from every other branch of government?  None other than former President Graham Spanier--who was quick to say he supported the school officials charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in the Sandusky case.  At the time, Spanier claimed the exemption was needed to protect the "competitiveness" of the University--and to save the institution from the expense of complying with hundreds of open records request. 

I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist--but don't you get the feeling that Spanier knew the potential bombshell that exisited in the personnel files and electronic records of both the Athletic Department and the Penn State Police Department?  He had to know it would be just a matter of time before one of Sandusky's victims grew tired of the man walking about free and respected in the community and took their accusations to a reporter who was not in bed with the University.  Better to go to extraordinary legislative lengths to put up a wall around that dirty laundry--rather than have it dragged out for everyone to see.

Fortunately, prosecutors can still subpoena that information--and it will be exposed--but only if the case goes to trial.  If Sandusky was to cop a plea--and the discovery information was to be sealed by the court--we may never know the full culpability of Penn State University and its adminstration.  And those that believe they are not accountable to the people will have scored another big victory.

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