We deserve better
Observer Editorial Board | Friday, February 2, 2018
On Friday at 2:11 p.m., student senators received an email informing them that their presence was mandatory at an emergency student senate meeting at 5:30 that evening.
“This will also be a closed meeting, the existence of this meeting must be kept confidential,” the email read.
In the early hours of Friday morning, the Judicial Council Election Committee announced sanctions against a ticket petitioning for signatures to run for student body president and vice president. But the ticket appealed the sanctions, and senate was required by the Student Union Constitution to convene within 48 hours to hear it.
And so they did. The senators filed in as windows were covered so no one could see in or out of the room. An Observer reporter was asked to leave, and did so once the group voted to close the meeting to the public in order to ensure the “safety and anonymity” of the party who brought forth the allegations.
For three hours, testimony, debate and discussion ensued. What exactly was said is unclear, but tensions were certainly high — visible in the weary, frustrated looks of senators as they walked in and out of their conference room, some voicing complaints about the proceedings.
When the three-hour ordeal finished and a decision was reached, the senators were finally excused. Two hours later, Judicial Council released the result of the long evening’s work.
The ticket’s original sanction of a five-hour suspension for campaigning — the punishment for allegedly entering classrooms to lobby for signatures, a violation of the Student Union Constitution — had been reduced to two.
At this point you may be thinking: “Wait, what? Those are the sanctions they had to spend three hours debating behind closed doors?”
“Why was the punishment and reduction so arbitrary?”
According to subsections 13.5(c) and 13.5(j) of the Student Union Constitution, if the Election Committee finds a party guilty of alleged election misconduct, it has broad power to determine the appropriate sanctions, and senators can “overturn” that decision.
“And they can do it without anyone else getting to hear why?”
If senate votes to close the meeting at the start by a two-thirds majority, then yes.
“Didn’t something like this happen last year?”
It did. One ticket was accused of campaign spending misconduct for purchasing Facebook advertising without the Election Committee’s approval. That ticket lost 7 percent of its votes before appealing and having the sanctions reduced to a 5 percent deduction after another multiple-hour emergency senate meeting.
“Did that end up mattering?”
No, it turned out the winners already had a narrow majority of the initial votes before any sanction was levied, but Judicial Council delayed releasing the results until the appeal was heard.
“So why did senate have to handle the matter behind closed doors?”
When they voted to close both of these election-related emergency meetings, they did so with the only reason offered being the “sensitivity of the topic.” But senate has also voted to close its meeting in two additional instances this year alone, which is a trend of cutting the student body off from its representatives.
“Well then how does student government expect the student body to take it seriously as representatives?”
That’s a good question.
Each year, most, if not all, of the tickets running for student body president and vice president tout professional-grade websites; this year is no exception.
Each year, the tickets running claim to be a voice for the students and vow to fight for the concerns of the student body; this year is no exception.
Each year, student senate and Judicial Council exercise their arbitrary powers over what seem like technicalities; this year is no exception.
It’s clear that student government takes itself seriously, and, for what it’s worth, this is a good thing — it has to, if it is going to accomplish anything.
What is a problem, however, is that Friday’s emergency, closed-door senate meeting is yet another reason to ask one simple but important question: Can anyone on the outside looking in take student government as seriously as it takes itself?
We all value fair elections, but do allegations of asking for signatures after class or buying a $5 Facebook ad merit multi-hour senate meetings? Does handling these seemingly minor infractions behind closed doors, leaving the public with more questions than answers, help it “represent the student body?” Can the majority of the student body say it understands why these meetings have to take place in secret?
If this is how student government uses its resources and prioritizes its responsibilities, then changes need to be made.
While this Editorial Board does not speak for every member of the Notre Dame community, we can assume that students would rather student government spend its time working toward returning Flex Point rollover or securing a late-night dining option in Duncan Student Center instead of in closed-door meetings over insignificant campaign violations.
Last year, voter turnout in the student body presidential election was below 60 percent, and all it takes to vote is the click of a button — you can even vote from your phone. This speaks to the fact that many students aren’t engaged with student government. Which is understandable, as spending three hours deliberating a two-hour suspension of a campaign doesn’t help engage students or demonstrate viable commitment to enacting the changes and improvements that candidates promised during the election season. Neither does keeping the meeting “confidential.”
Students can’t care about or engage with something they know nothing about. With multiple closed-door senate meetings this year, engaging the student body is clearly not a priority for student government, no matter what it may claim.
As elections for the next student body president and vice president approach, we as a student body should demand more.
Because we deserve more.
We deserve more transparency.
Last year’s Editorial Board called for transparency when Judicial Council handed out its arbitrary deduction of 7 percent of votes for the Fonseca-Narimatsu ticket without offering any explanation to the student body. But this already questionable level of visibility has seemed to decline even further. Not only has senate had three closed meetings this academic year alone, but it attempted to skirt procedure altogether for this most recent session — organizers of Friday’s meeting violated section 3.4(o) of the Student Union Constitution by claiming a senate meeting was closed and confidential before senators even voted on the matter. Many senators said as they entered the room that they had no idea what the meeting was even about, but they voted to close it anyway. Closing the meeting to protect the identity of the accuser doesn’t strike us as a good reason, either — was giving this person a shield meant to protect him or her from harm? Or merely criticism?
We deserve more accountability.
Without that transparency, there is no way for members of student government to be held accountable. In last year’s election allegations, the results could have possibly been determined by the closed-door decisions of Judicial Council alone had the sanctions impacted the outcome. And who’s to say the suspension in campaigning has any effect? If the signatures for the petition to run were acquired through a rules violation, why was the guilty ticket not required to instead garner more signatures for its eligibility? Ultimately, we have no way of knowing if the punishment fits the crime.
We deserve better representation.
The purpose of student government is to represent the students, and the first step in that is to respect the students that elected them. The Blais-Shewit platform promised to “move senate meetings to a larger space whenever discussing important items so that more constituents can attend.” Yet, nothing in the spirit of that promise was achieved when senate closed its meeting Friday — or the other two times this year. Instead, student government sent the message that its work transcends the student body and exists beyond the realm of the community’s comprehension. In short, student government chose not to take the body it represents seriously.
And this organization’s lack of transparency, accountability and representation for us begs the question of whether we should be taking it seriously, either.