As this batch of Student Government Association executives and senators nears the midpoint of its term, taking stock of a series of internal reforms passed in August reveals mixed results.
The “Senate Bills Package of 2013” called for seven alterations to senate procedure and passed during the first senate meeting of the semester in a single unanimous yea vote by all 25 senators present. The affirmed bill was aimed at remedying a common perception of SGA as unaccountable to students, a recurring talking point during last spring’s election.
Before it passed, then-Senate Pro Tempore Jon Goodfriend, a junior from Douglasville majoring in political science, described the bills package as “one of the most important pieces of legislation the senate has ever seen.”
The standout amendment has been the open forum, the dedication of 30 minutes at the beginning of each bimonthly senate quorum to a venue for the student body to voice concerns. The open forum has provided a work-around of rigid senate procedures that would usually not allow non-SGA members to speak and provided some of impetus for resolutions passed this fall.
Samantha Meyer, an executive member of the Women’s Studies Student Organization, called for a women’s center at the open forum on Sept. 3. She said senators contacted her about writing a resolution “within 24 hours.” Resolution 26-18, creating a “Center for Women and Gender Equity,” passed Oct. 22.
Kathryn Macias spoke at the first, second and third senate open forums to promote greater availability of gender-neutral bathrooms to accommodate transgender and disabled students and visitors.
“This is my home. I want everyone to feel welcome in my home,” Macias said Sept. 3.
The advocacy of Macias, a senior communications studies major from Warner Robins, inspired Resolution 26-07, which calls for gender neutral signs outside of single-stall bathrooms, and more gender neutral accommodations in the design plans of new buildings and renovations. That resolution passed on Sept. 17.
SGA Executive Secretary Jim Thompson and Director of Communications Patrick Klibanoff publish complete voting and attendance records, another requirement of the bills package.
Other measures toward greater accountability have floundered.
Of the 16 bills and resolutions introduced to the floor this semester, all but one have passed. Few votes on resolutions have been closely contested. The most narrow vote on a passed resolution garnered three times as many up-votes as down-votes. Resolution 26-07, calling for greater gender neutral bathroom availability, received 32 yeas, 10 nays and 8 abstentions, according to SGA senate voting records. The only “not passed” resolution in fact received more yea votes than nay votes. Resolution 26-04 did not pass because of a large number of abstentions.
That lack of contention is concerning, said Tyler Baker, Family and Consumer Sciences senator.
The four day window after a resolution passes the rules committee and before its introduction to the senate floor should be extended, he said. Though SGA posts the resolutions on its site on the Thursday or Friday before the senate meeting, another requirement set down by the reforms package, “most senators are in weekend mode,” said Baker, a senior housing and financial planning major from Marietta.
For all of its strengths, the open forum rarely features dissenters. With the exception of representatives from the Residence Hall Association opposed to the elimination of student life seats at the first senate, no speaker at an open forum has offered opposition to a resolution under senate consideration, according to meeting minutes posted on the SGA website.
Often advocates for resolutions — students with “insider information” — pack the audience, with no representatives for the opposing side, which places a certain “pressure” on voters, Baker said.
“Unless you are an extraordinarily engaged student refreshing the SGA webpage everyday,” a student in opposition to the resolution, and even dissenting senators, do not have much time to consider their arguments, Baker said. Since many senators view an abstention as a forfeiture of their responsibility to represent the student body, most resolutions receive an unusually high number of yeas.
Or has SGA, through the open forum and policy board, have been more effective in drawing up resolutions that match the will of the students, and that Senators feel confident voting in favor of?
“Part of it is that the starting point of a lot of resolutions has been the open forum and the policy board,” said Vice President Uzma Chowdhury, who presides over the senate meetings and championed the reforms package in August. ”So resolutions this year have been more supported by research and more grounded in students’ needs.”
That can’t be the entire story, Baker said.
“I would love to think that SGA is passing resolutions in the students’ best interest 100 percent of the time, but that’s simply not the case,” Baker said.
Chowdhury admitted there are kinks in the open forum, but said, “we were basically starting from nothing.” She said SGA might consider allowing students to post what they will speak about at upcoming open forums on the organization’s website.
She also said parliamentary procedure as set down in the SGA constitution — so-called “Robert’s Rules” — prevents her from slowing down votes to make sure all dissenters are heard. “If a senator moves to end debate, I have to honor that,” Chowdhury said. Senators can vote “nay” on the vote to end debate, which extends the ability of speakers on the “con” side to continue to make their case.
Senate Pro Tempore Taylor Lamb said she plans to reschedule the procedure of the rules committee, which she oversees, to address this problem. She has met with Baker and SGA President Austin Laufersweiler on improving student access to resolutions before they come up for a vote.
Lamb said she will also research the lines of the SGA constitution to make sure any changes are within her purview.
“I need to revamp the process with everyone as soon as senate ends for the semester,” said Lamb, a sophomore political science and public relations major from Valdosta. “I am completely on-board with students having more access to bills before they reach the senate.”
Still, the senate failed to bring any resolutions to the floor during two meetings of the seven that have convened this semester - on Oct. 1 and Nov. 5. Both meetings lasted less than one hour. The meeting on Nov. 5 lasted thirty minutes.
One more easily fulfilled provision of the reforms package is the requirement that academic Senators meet with their respective deans.
The executives planned for the director of legislative affairs to ensure that requirement is fulfilled, but he has since resigned. Attorney General Shreyas Vangala has assumed that role, and is monitoring email exchanges between senators and deans.
As for the arguably most radical provision of the reforms package — the ability of the legislative branch to audit the executive branch — no plans are in the works yet.
“I hope they do,” said Chowdhury with enthusiasm. “Any working organization requires constant evaluation and should improve upon constructive criticism, or it will just fall apart.”