Students deserve to see their government conduct business in the open, not behind closed doors
Journalists fight for transparency as part of their ethical code. Good journalists demand that governments do business in the open so that the public can hold elected and appointed officials accountable. During the COVID-19 pandemic, transparency is more essential than ever — but more and more, both professional and student journalists alike are facing difficulties accessing public meetings and public records.
That’s why recent actions of the ASUCD Senate are so alarming to the members of The California Aggie’s Editorial Board. We have repeatedly demanded that the ASUCD government conduct its business fairly, transparently and in ways that do not disenfranchise voters. After all, governments derive their power from the consent of the governed — in this case, the undergraduate students on our campus.
Our main concern is the use of closed sessions, which is directly related to the government’s failure to appoint and confirm someone to the ASUCD Judicial Council (JC) within the timeframe set by the bylaws. The vacant seat, created when Maria Martinez was elected as external affairs vice president during Winter Quarter, should have been acknowledged by the incoming administration and filled immediately. Instead, four weeks into this quarter, our ASUCD government came to a grinding halt as no one had been appointed to fill Martinez’s JC seat.
The Senate did not meet for two weeks because of this vacancy.
When it convened again during Week 7, it moved immediately into a closed session to consider appointing Jenna DiCarlo to the open JC seat. Normally, confirmations are held during open sessions of the Senate. Instead of conducting business in the open, the Senate retreated behind a Zoom waiting room screen, keeping an Aggie journalist and a handful of ASUCD unit directors waiting, not knowing when they would be allowed back into the meeting.
The closed session, which lasted for over an hour, ended without DiCarlo’s confirmation, forcing the Senate to adjourn without conducting business for a third week in a row. Some senators asked to be able to choose from the whole pool of JC candidates, flouting the Senate’s normal procedure of considering only one candidate per each vacancy in the association. And, though an item called “close session” was placed on the agenda, the reason for the closed session was not made public, as required by the ASUCD Bylaws. Some senators have gone on the record saying that they didn’t know why they were moving into a closed session during the meeting.
The Aggie reporter assigned to cover that week’s Senate meeting tried to clarify what had happened with ASUCD Vice President Akhila Kandaswamy, who admitted that the closed session “was not planned” nor placed on the agenda 48 hours in advance, as seemingly required by the bylaws — and, “The closed session on the agenda was for a different subject matter.” She said the closed session was justified because it was about “potentially sensitive litigation,” when the common use of “litigation” under California’s Brown Act regards litigation being pursued by or against a public entity, not litigation that could come before something like the JC. Kandaswamy also tried to justify the closed session because the ASUCD Bylaws allow a closed session “if discussion in an open session concerning [litigation] matters would adversely affect the position of, or be detrimental to, ASUCD’s interest.” This is not enough of a reason to hold a closed session, according to the League of California Cities, which says, “It is not enough that a subject is sensitive, embarrassing, or controversial,” to hold a closed session.
Additionally, The Aggie’s campus news editor requested an interview with Kandaswamy over the Senate’s use of closed sessions over a week ago, and, after three emails, has still not received a response from her.
This week, the Senate has another closed session on the agenda. It has again failed to state on the agenda the broad reason as to why the closed session is being held, as required by the bylaws. This could be as simple as “personnel matters,” but the public has again been left in the dark.
We know that times are difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, we are deeply disappointed in how the ASUCD government has conducted itself over the course of this quarter. When a government retreats behind closed doors, every member of the public loses. We ask that the the Senate strongly consider these action items so that it can prevent transparency issues from arising again in the future:
- We ask that the ASUCD Senate comply completely with California’s open meeting laws, especially the Brown Act. The Senate did adjust some procedures earlier this year to comply with the law, including publishing its agendas 72 hours before any meeting, but it could do better. Namely, it must publish the reason for each closed session and also only hold closed sessions for Brown Act-allowed reasons.
- The rules around closed sessions are currently confusing at best and undecipherable at worst. The Senate must commit itself to amending the bylaws to make the rules around closed sessions more concise and contained to a few, clear sections. As they read now, the bylaws are difficult to understand and remind us of a previous editorial in which we said that the “bylaws [were] made incomprehensible after years of legislative tinkering,” specifically in regard to the presidential recall process. The same seems to have happened with the bylaws concerning closed sessions.
- The Senate should maintain its current use of Robert’s Rules of Order. The rules were already subsidiary to any rules in the ASUCD Bylaws, but recent legislation to further reduce their importance is concerning. Robert’s Rules, though not as widely known by our generation as previous ones, allow anyone with knowledge of them to understand common procedures at public meetings. Their importance should not be discounted just because senators find them “impractical.”
- Members of ASUCD’s government must take their responsibility to speak to the media seriously. The Aggie’s role on this campus is to make sure that students are informed about what their government is doing. To ignore requests for interviews is a refusal to engage with the student body that elected them and whom they have voluntarily chosen to represent.
Written by: The Editorial Board