Dangerously Defunct Definitions Determine Difficulties

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Rian Fantozzi

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Editor’s Note
November 22, 2019
Emery Malachowski

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We are all aware that it can occasionally be difficult to follow a student government meeting when they are discussing bylaws. Sometimes these bylaws can come off as overwrought or full of detailed rules. However, the true confusion and difficulty with understanding them is because the exact opposite is true—the branches and roles within Senate are incredibly illdefined, and that is where the confusion stems.

Let’s start with the very basics—the Senate itself. Senate is defined within the constitution as the elected members of the student body. However, as it stands today the supermajority of voting members in the Senate are appointed, not elected. This is in clear violation of the constitutional definition. Why then, does Senate continuously violate one of the only clear definitions in the constitution? This violation is partially because the government moved faster than its documents and is reinforced by the lack of weight written rules carry within student government.

Dangerously, unwritten rules tend to trump written rules.

When rules are  contested, the final arbiter must be the written rules, which are binding and should be allowed to take precedent. The belief that written documents are not binding is pervasive within student government meetings, and sets a dangerous precedent for the future of student government.

Within student government policy committee’s illdefined role caused difficulties. Policy members attempted to answer their own fundamental issue: where do our ideas come from? Policy is split between two roles the role of the expert and the role of the political branch. In its role as an expert, policy committee has been asked by executive committee in the past to write definitions and policies in specific ways to fix certain issues. People in policy committee have an eye for details and often some sort of background in prelaw studies that makes them efficient at writing policies and that make policy committee an important independent branch. In the role  of an executive directed reform committee, Policy is ideally apolitical.

However, Policy has sometimes allowed these ideas from Executive to die in policy committee discussions and never get written. This is either because the ideas were impossible to enact or, the committee was opposed or divided as to the implementation of the idea. While it is a fundamental part of some committees to allow ideas to die, if Policy are just the “experts” that act as the writers for decrees from executive committee, should they be granted the power to let these ideas die, or as they have  done, to come up with ideas on their own?

In this capacity, Policy is acting as a political force making decisions about the systems and structures of student government. However, policy committee members do not have to hold elected positions. Where then does Policy gain its right to speak for the student body?

Good definitions include several elements. One, they should probably have a mission statement for the group that defines their overall purpose. Only Student Advocates for Universal Respect (SAUR) has a mission statement out of the student government committees, and even then it is internal to themselves and not present in any of the official student government documents. Committees should also have a definition of their composition—who is in them, and whether they and their chairs are elected or appointed. However, the SAUR chair is not written into any of the governing documents, yet a SAUR chair exists. Unwritten rules once again take precedence over any written bylaws.

Good definitions should also include the scope of the committee. This is a broad definition of what the committee should and should not do. If something is not within the scope it is not necessarily “not allowed” for the committee to try and do that thing. There should also be defined limitations of every committee what they are not allowed to do under any circumstances.

Definitions should also include the duties of committee members. These are specific items that the committee is responsible for and must fulfill.

As of now there are not even institutional ways to hold anyone responsible for breaking the written rules, and therefore no accountability to them. Ethics committee is mainly for calling out those who are not attending meetings, but even this committee is another example of a prong that is ill-defined. An executive committee member is in violation of the bylaws if they miss three meetings, but then executive committee members are left out of the section that describes the procedure of calling upon an executive committee member to be brought to ethics committee.

This lack of definitions has broader implications than just chaotic student government meetings. If this current system continues, where unwritten rules are respected and written rules are not, the student government risks losing credibility and faith will be eroded in its rules. With definitions unclear, particularly of who is allowed to represent the student body and make decisions, the democratic process is undermined and ruled instead by voting blocs. To uphold democracy and continue moving student government forward, the important role of definitions should not be ignored.