By Paige Kube
Additional reporting by Emma Way
Student Life Editor
Senior and former senator from West Hall Oren Steinberg talked openly about the accountability of the Washington College Student Government Association (SGA) when he organized a “sit-in protest” against the SGA last Tuesday, Nov. 11. The protest took place during the open forum session that concludes each weekly Senate meeting.
Steinberg’s concerns revolved around appointments instead of elections for certain positions, concentrated power in few people, senator accountability, and lack of transparency. Steinberg resigned from his senate position prior to the meeting.
Regarding his decision to organize the SGA sit-in, Steinberg said, “Very few people know, for example, that the members of the executive board receive salaries that come out of the student activities fee. Additionally almost no students know how positions are chosen within the SGA besides the basic president and vice president positions.”
Steinberg used the Washington Interactive Gaming Society (WIGS) listserv to discuss and promote the protest. In addition, flyers were distributed around campus on Monday, Nov. 10 by Steinberg and his friends. The event was planned in about 72 hours.
Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Xavier Cole attended the sit-in. Before Steinberg spoke, Dr. Cole said, “I’m always curious about how our students are interacting, and interacting civilly. I’m hoping for a nice strong civil conversation around the issues tonight. I wanted to be here to witness that… It’s good for things to be challenged in appropriate ways.”
Also prior to Steinberg’s speech, sophomore and senator for Minta Martin Jess Lloyd said, “Honestly I think he’s just going to get shut down on whatever he has to say. Whatever he has to say, they’re just going to tell him he’s wrong.”
Still, Steinberg was able to address a number of his complaints.
Complaint 1: Appointment vs. election
One of Steinberg’s chief complaints was the appointment of positions, specifically the financial controller, who serves on the review board. The review board consists of five members: president, financial controller, Honor Board chair, speaker of the senate, and the parliamentarian. The financial controller, Honor Board chair, and parliamentarian are positions appointed by the previous review board. Steinberg viewed this process of appointments as “self-perpetuating.”
Freshman Jusden Messick agreed with Steinberg’s claim. “The main grievance I have is that a paid student government association position in the financial controller, which was previously an elected position, has been amended to be…an appointed position…,” he said. “Now, the incumbent financial controller was a member of the previous constitutional review committee… And under bylaws article 1… section 2H, number 4A, item I, ‘Should one of these persons be running for a position, they will be excused from their duty as a committee member.’ Thus, as she was running for appointment, she should have been removed from the constitutional review committee appointing her to a position.”
Contrary to Messick’s statement, the financial controller is not a member of the constitutional review committee; this position serves as a member of the review board. Though the names are similar, the two groups hold very different power. The financial controller must reapply and undergo the same interview process as all other applicants for that position. When this occurs, the financial controller is unable to vote on who should be appointed as the new financial controller. In this case, the parliamentarian, who usually does not have a vote in these appointments, would become the fourth voting member of the review board.
SGA President and senior Connor Harrison said, “When there are people, such as what happened last year that are returning members, that are reapplying for positions…they recuse themselves from the entire process.”
“I also was required to re-apply regardless [of someone else running]. I was interviewed by the old review board [and] stepped out of the room,” said senior and Financial Controller Katherine Young.
While the financial controller was, in fact, an elected position in the past, the position became an appointed position under the leadership of former SGA President Andrew Antonio, Class of 2012. Steinberg was unaware that this change was made and approved by the student body in 2011; he thought this change was unrecorded. Antonio describes the reason for this change.
“The theory behind the idea was simple; SGA elections are sometimes won and lost on the basis of popularity, and the SGA financial controller with his [or] her list of duties spanning technical financial fields…should not be subject to the same factors that can influence a general election,” said Antonio. “The SGA should not cede control of its budgeting processes…to someone unqualified to hold the position or unwilling to learn its intricacies.”
“It is tough enough to get students to come out to vote for president and vice president to begin with, but to have voting on seven other positions would be just an all out bloodbath,” said Harrison.
The claim that a past financial controller would be able to re-appoint him or herself was retracted by Steinberg prior to his address. These incongruences may be a result of two different SGA constitutions previously posted under the SGA’s page on the WC website.
“We believe these mistakes and changes happened when the website switched over,” said Harrison.
This issue has since been resolved.
Complaint 2: Concentrated power in few positions
The idea of putting a lot of power in individuals that were only selected by the members of the review board rather than the student body was something that concerned Steinberg. “If those three people [financial controller, Honor Board chair, parliamentarian] agree, they can choose who replaces them next year without any oversight from the student body as a whole,” said Steinberg.
Senior Tyler Abbott’s role as parliamentarian, for example, is an appointed position that “has the right to interpret the bylaws of the constitution at his discretion,” said Harrison.
“As parliamentarian, I’m expected to know the constitution inside and out,” said Abbott. “Given that I am the head of the constitutional review committee and the fact that I was appointed to be parliamentarian, which means I have this discretion and they see me best fit in order to make these decisions.”
Part of Tuesday’s discussion revolved around the parliamentarian’s decision to impose electronic votes prior to amending the bylaws. The constitution formerly stated, “The ballots shall be placed in a secure box” (Article 3, Section 2, subsection F1).
Last month, on Oct. 2, a motion to add “or submitted electronically” to this line of the constitution of the bylaws was passed. In order for a bylaw to be amended, it must be passed by a three-fifths vote of the senate for two weeks in a row.
However, before the amendment was added, electronic votes were used due to the parliamentarian’s ability to interpret the constitution. “I felt as if that [electronic voting] was a secure location where these online ballots would go, and I felt like that still stuck within the constitutional requirements,” said Abbott.
The constitution was not updated to reflect this change until Nov. 14, following Steinberg’s address.
Complaint 3: Lack of accountability
The senators, elected yearly by students in each dormitory, hold all legislative power in the student government. The issue of senate members not speaking for or against certain legislation was a topic of Tuesday’s sit-in.
“I believe that it is very important for the student senate to speak up about different…votes that are coming up and I don’t think they should just be robots and say yes or no,” said senior J.M. Wilkins. “I think that there should be discussion and I agreed with him [Steinberg] on that point that there needs to be more accountability.”
One particular grievance pertained to the organizations committee, whose job is to discuss club and organization proposals. This committee does not make the decision of whether an organization will be recognized; the members propose their recommendation to the rest of the senate, which will then vote on the recognition.
Steinberg’s concern revolved around the lack of discussion that usually follows this committee’s recommendations, often resulting in a unanimous approval of most organizations requests.
“The reason why we [the organizations committee] make the recommendations and no one goes against those recommendations is often times…the senate as a whole does not have the time to ask all the questions that [the organizations committee] have the time to ask…,” said Freshman Class Vice President Jenni Clune. “I don’t think it’s fair for you [Steinberg] to say they are running the show.”
Complaint 4: Transparency
Each member of the senate represents the students that live in their respective residence hall, and therefore are responsible for keeping their fellow residents informed on matters discussed at senate meetings.
“They [students] don’t know how their senators are voting, they don’t know if they are being properly represented,” said Steinberg.
Steinberg proposed the votes of senators be recorded so students may be sure they are being properly represented. The idea of emailing senate minutes to the entire campus was also suggested.
“They [students] should be getting emails every single week from their senators stating what is going on,” said Speaker of the Senate and sophomore Elisabeth Engle.
These emails should include a report of the meeting, specifically addressing any issues pertaining to the residents of the senator’s respective residence halls. If a student is not receiving these emails, they should contact a member of the Executive Board.
Other complaints were not discussed at the meeting after the conversation was shifted away from Steinberg’s platform to the topic of a smoke-free campus. One such grievance was the idea of bias within the organization.
“One other problem I have is that a highly disproportionate portion of the SGA are members of Greek organizations,” said Steinberg.
At a small school, it is expected that students will take part in multiple organizations. SGA members are no different. “We have students from every single background, academically, economically, sports and Greek life…who participate and vote on things,” said Engle.
Young agreed with Engle when she said, “The budget committee is comprised of diverse members and that’s something we’ve made sure of… That committee is the one putting forth the recommendations [for funding].”
Furthermore, to help the SGA avoid bias, while also making committees more efficient, the Executive Board used a process called preferencing this year. This was a practice used to distribute senators among different committees and prevent them from only joining a committee because it is one a friend or someone they know serves. This allows the Executive Board to place senators where their skills and abilities can be put to the best use.
“The bylaws…state how many members are required to be a part of certain committees,” said Harrison. “We wanted to put people where we saw the best fit and not put them with their friends because a lot of times…we’ve seen it is tough to ask your friends ‘Hey, can you come do this for me?’… They [senators] all power-ranked their top three choices [of committees], not everyone got their first or second choice.”
Though the SGA had responses or explanations for Steinberg’s concerns, this sit-in offered clarification on the inner workings of the SGA and the complexities of the constitution.
This sit-in may have solved some of the issues Steinberg was protesting. “People know that they can speak up…that was my biggest goal here and that was a success.”
Students can find the constitution and bylaws on the SGA page of the WC website at washcoll.edu/campuslife/sga/constitution-bylaws.php.
If there are concerns regarding SGA processes, the members of the review board and Executive Board encourage students to bring these concerns forward.
Harrison said, “Things will not change unless they’re brought in front of the leadership… I do respect Oren for coming tonight.”
Questions or concerns? Contact:
Connor Harrison, SGA president at charrison4
Maddie Zins, SGA vice president at mzins2
Tyler Abbott, parliamentarian at tabbott2
Katherine Young, financial controller at kyoung2
Elisabeth Engle, speaker of the senate at eengle2