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Adam Smeltz: On Public Accountability, Public Hours and the Penn State Board

on January 16, 2012 6:15 AM

For many public bodies, fire comes first.

Their public meetings open with a public hour -- er, "hour" -- during which constituents can air grievances, demand attention and command the spotlight, if only for two or three minutes apiece.

The practice -- the tradition -- is no small piece of our checks-and-balances system of public accountability. It encourages transparency. And it virtually forces elected officials to listen; they fail to do so at their own political peril.

But when the Penn State Board of Trustees meets, including publicly, there is no public hour.

Of course, members of the public can attend and sit through all the board's public sessions. They can listen to questions raised by board members.

They cannot, however, raise questions of their own. As if to underscore the point, police are routinely stationed outside the meeting room in the Nittany Lion Inn.

In the grand scheme, perhaps, it's a relatively small nuance. You could argue there are more-important fights to pick with Penn State -- over budget transparency, over open records in general, for instance. And you'd probably be right.

Just imagine, though, if the board were to announce this week, in advance of its public meeting on Friday, that it will establish a public hour for public commentary.

The public hour could become hours. Yes, some people might grandstand for political purposes -- just as they do before more-governmental bodies. And, yes, it could become a feeding frenzy for the media.

But such is the nature of transparency. Bona fide transparency is not a function of public relations or marketing; it's a function of good governance, of public service, of efficiency and disinfection. Such openness can be sloppy; it can be ugly; it can consume hours, days, months.

In the end, it forces those in charge to deliver answers. It forces them to confront the reality of public sentiment.

Realistically, I don't expect the Penn State board to launch a public hour at its Friday meeting. Board defenders might say it's not a fully public body, after all; that the university is funded, at this point, only marginally -- proportionally -- with public monies; that the public has other ways to deliver its messages.

They may be right. At this hour in university history -- in Pennsylvania history -- it just feels as though any step toward openness, toward accountability, will help propel us collectively toward the healing, confidence and faith we so overwhelmingly lack.

On the Post Paterno Interview

One other note: The Washington Post on Saturday released online Sally Jenkins' interview with Joe Paterno, featuring his first extended public remarks since his Nov. 9 dismissal as Penn State football coach.

Jenkins, a columnist, has received lots of attention for the piece, a flowingly written work that also appeared in Sunday print editions.

Its contents reinforced what much of the public believes to be true about Paterno's personality and character.

But if I may -- I'm immediately struck by a couple elements: As to why Paterno did not immediately call then-athletic director Tim Curley after receiving a sexually charged report involving Jerry Sandusky, the explanation Paterno supplied to Jenkins appears to differ somewhat from the one he provided to the grand jury.

Likewise, the insinuation in the Jenkins piece that Paterno didn't have strong social ties to Sandusky should open the door to more questions. Local awareness of Paterno's onetime presence at Second Mile events, for instance, is substantial.

There's room here for more reporting. Stay tuned.

Next Article
Penn State Football: 65 Days Later, Why Jenkins Got the Call From Paterno
January 16, 2012 1:00 AM
by Mike Poorman
Penn State Football: 65 Days Later, Why Jenkins Got the Call From Paterno
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