Officials from Penn State and three other state-related universities didn't put up a very convincing fight this week for why they shouldn't have to comply with the state's Right-to-Know Law.
They said it would cost them money. They said it would burden them administratively. They said it could create internal animosity if workers were to find out what other workers earn.
Those are the same concerns faced by counties, cities, school boards, townships and others subject to the law. Kutztown, East Stroudsburg and the 12 other universities in the State System of Higher Education face them, too. But that argument misses the point, which is that the public should be able to track its money and hold institutions that accept it accountable.
Allegations of Penn State administrators' covering up Jerry Sandusky's molestation of boys have taken this issue to a higher level.
"That's why we're looking at this issue," Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, said at a hearing Monday before the Senate State Government Committee in Harrisburg. "Many of us feel the university failed, and one reason it failed was because there was no adequate right-to-know provisions."
Subjecting Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln universities to the law won't "prevent the next Jerry Sandusky," warned Terry Mutchler, director of the state Office of Open Records, but it could expose them sooner.
"The difference is you might have found out a little earlier," she said, noting that her office had received and denied appeals seeking records "related to Penn State and the Sandusky scenario" because the Right-to-Know Law didn't make those records public.
The law allows the public to request documents that show how their governments operate, spend money and provide services. It's designed to ensure that public officials don't operate in secret and to hold them accountable to citizens.
Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln are not part of the State System of Higher Education but are designated by law as "state-related." They have limited responsibilities under the Right-to-Know Law.
They are required to file reports on spending, including the salaries of officers and directors and the top 25 paid employees.
Bills pending in the state Senate and House propose making the schools fully subject to the law, which presumably would make all university employee salaries public, plus other information such as the terms of various contracts.
The law also provides for documents such as emails to be released in some situations. Penn State emails have been cited as evidence in the alleged cover-up of the Sandusky scandal.
At the Senate hearing Monday, lawyers for the schools testified they already provide adequate public disclosure of how they spend the state money they receive. They said they also provide academic, crime, faculty and other data under other state and federal laws.
"We're not here to hide any information about how we spend commonwealth funds," testified George Moore, senior vice president and counsel at Temple.
Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne, said lawmakers aren't just interested in financial accountability.
"This is as much about the culture of governance at these universities," Yudichak said.
The university officials stressed that their schools are not state agencies and have independent governance through their boards of trustees, which meet publicly. The boards aren't completely independent of the state, though, as state officials appoint some trustees.
The universities believe that subjecting them to the same disclosure requirements as state agencies would be unfair and cause hardships by interfering with their private attributes, such as the ability to negotiate contracts with vendors.
"It does restrain the ability of Penn State to serve its mission," testified Stephen Dunham, vice president and general counsel at Penn State.
Paul Supowitz, vice chancellor and associate general counsel at Pitt, said the universities would be "severely compromised by full inclusion" and it "would create significant negative impacts and unintended consequences."
When pressed by senators for specifics, though, school officials didn't offer much that swayed me. They didn't seem to sway some senators, either, as members of the committee asked several times for specifics about the effects of including universities in the law.
"What really would be devastating about that to the universities?" Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, asked.
The universities mentioned concerns about protecting faculty research and technology development. They feared that labor negotiations could be disrupted. They cited privacy issues involving university medical centers.
Those all are legitimate. But they're unfounded, as those types of records don't have to be released.
The Right-to-Know Law exempts from release records about collective bargaining; trade secrets or proprietary information; unpublished lecture notes, manuscripts, articles and creative works in progress; research-related material and scholarly correspondence; donor information; and health-related information.
Mutchler told lawmakers that given all the exemptions, subjecting the universities to the law would not mean giving the public a key to their filing cabinets.
"More information than not will be able to be withheld," she testified.
Further working against the universities' position is that Pennsylvania is one of only three states where records of state-funded universities aren't presumed to be public.
Dunham testified that the state-related universities in Pennsylvania are different from public research universities in other states and should be treated differently.
University officials made one point lawmakers should consider. Because the universities are not state agencies, they don't have "sovereign immunity." The Sovereign Immunity Act says the state generally is immune from being sued for carrying out its duties, though there are some exceptions. Without that immunity, Pitt's Supowitz noted, liability issues may arise from disclosure of information.
I agree some areas of the Right-to-Know Law should be changed to address concerns by the state-related universities and others about records requests that don't make sense, are harassing and waste limited public resources and tax dollars.
There are legislative proposals to do that.
Bucks County's open records officer, Regina Armitage, testified that inmates submit many frivolous requests that "have no rationale" or seek records the county doesn't have or "don't even exist."
Senate Bill 444 would limit the types of records inmates can ask for and would allow a government to seek a court order to exempt it from complying with "unduly burdensome" requests.
Limiting access to one segment of the population is a slippery slope that is being met with opposition from advocates for inmates.
Armitage said half of the public records requests the county has received since 2009 have been from companies and labor unions seeking records for "commercial" purposes.
Senate Bill 444 would allow governments to charge fees to fill "commercial" requests for public records.
I'll be following these issues and writing more as the debate continues.
The Watchdog is published Thursdays and Sundays. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, 610-841-2364 or The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA, 18101. I'm on Twitter @mcwatchdog and Facebook at Morning Call Watchdog.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun