On Nov. 2, the Student Government Association (SGA) voted 34-5 in favor of a bill that took away the general student body’s right to vote at committee meetings.
The Committee Voting Bill added the clause “Only Student Government members, including associate members, will be allowed to vote in committees.”
“It’s pretty straightforward,” Annelise Catanzaro, SGA executive president, said.
Less straightforward, perhaps, is the drama that unfolded at one committee meeting last year, prompting the change, and what this change now means for the campus community.
Dan Beckelman, former senator at-Large, said he proposed the bill “because (he) thought that it was dysfunctional to have people not associated with SGA voting in SGA meetings.”
“I feel it is better for SGA to be cohesive and not burdened by people flittering in and out,” Beckelman said.
Catanzaro, however, said that the flittering of students in and out of committee meetings has not, historically, been a problem.
“Internal SGA committees are not well attended by the student body at-large,” she said. “Occasionally, students will attend Legal (and) Governmental Affairs to present their constitution for a new club or organization, but that’s about it.”
In fact, those SGA members interviewed said they only remembered one instance where non-SGA members went to exercise their right to vote at a committee meeting. That instance was last spring’s Legal and Governmental Affairs meeting to vote on the bill to create the position of vice president of Equity and Diversity.
Beckelman said the meeting became “a pile-on” of non-SGA members.
At the time, Beckelman was actually one of the non-SGA members who attended the meeting.
Beckelman said he was among three non-SGA members present, all College Republicans. Now, he is a College Democrat.
“While three non-SGA members were all indeed College Republicans at the time, there was not a club-wide movement to block the position of vice president of Equity and Diversity from being created,” Tony DeCarlo, vice-chair of the College Republicans, said. “The issue was controversial at the time and some of our members felt very passionately about it.”
At the meeting, Ravi Kaneriya, senator at-Large, said, “the College Republicans pretty much brought several of their members to the committee to vote against the bill.”
“The people they brought were pretty much people who had never paid any interest to SGA and didn’t even really understand the bill,” he said. “They just showed up because their friends told them to come and vote against the VP of Equity and Diversity.”
“I thought it was simply disgusting and an abuse of power that certain prominent SGA members were exploiting their friends and using them as tools to block the bill, even though they knew next to nothing about it,” Kaneriya said.
“I especially remember that meeting because I pretty much admonished those SGA members and told them that their conduct was wrong and unacceptable. The whole irony is that Dan Beckelman (who proposed the bill that would prohibit student votes at committee meetings) was one of the then non-SGA people who was brought in to vote down the bill.”
Beckelman said he remembers Kaneriya’s admonishments, but said the accusations of the non-SGA members being uninformed about the bill are “not true at all.”
The then non-SGA members “understood it perfectly,” he said.
Beckelman said that the committee meeting made him realize there were potential problems with having non-SGA members vote.
Teo Paoletti, senator of Science, who was serving on the Legal and Governmental Affairs committee at the time, said that that particular meeting was the first time most members of SGA had seen such a tactic, so the committee postponed the vote on the position to give more people a chance to speak out.
With the exception of those present at that meeting, it seems most students did not know they even had the right to vote at committee meetings.
Kaneriya said the fact that most of non-SGA members did not know they had the right is probably why so few ever exercised the right when it existed.
Nikki Berzinskis, sophomore accounting major, agreed, and said that when it comes to SGA, students at the College “are not aware of the issues” and “they’re not aware of what their rights are.”
However, their ignorance is not due to lack of publicity, Catanzaro said.
“(Internal committee) meetings are publicized on our Web site, in flyers and (have been printed) once in The Signal,” she said.
Paoletti said he did not feel a need to revoke a right that was barely used.
He described some possible effects of the disenfranchisement, “Without this right, a student’s voice could be easily lost, or if a group of students, uninvolved in SGA strongly wanted to see something passed, they would have to persuade senators to see things their way. This is highly political and unnecessary,” he said.
Still, Paoletti said he does not think the change will discourage students from getting involved.
“Whether they had the right to vote in committee or not, the students who are concerned will get involved one way or the other,” he said.
Kaneriya, who voted for the bill, said he sees the bill as a double edged sword.
“On the one hand, it would keep mobs of non-SGA students that are unrepresentative of the campus community at large from blocking legislation, but at the same time, if only SGA members can vote, then the SGA could block legislation in committee that might actually be very popular with the student body.”
In part to address these concerns, SGA recently gave students another way to have their voices heard.
On Nov. 16, SGA unanimously passed the Initiative Bill proposed by Kaneriya, which allows any student to bring forward a bill or resolution to the SGA Senate without the need for a Senate sponsor.
Instead, students would need 100 signatures from other students at the College.
Kaneriya said the bill can be a powerful tool for the general student body.
“Although this would weaken the power of the Senate, I believe it will reform and enhance the democratic process by putting power back in the hands of the people,” he said.