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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Student Government Quagmired by Accusations & Gridlock

During the latest general assembly, on March 3, 2010, tensions that have been building up in the Student Senate, the legislative body of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), since the first general assembly and has developed into serious signs of a dysfunctional government.

Gridlock appears to have gripped the proceedings of the USG amid accusations of corruption within the leadership of the Student Government, as many proposals were either shelved or heavily modified during one of the longest sessions of the general assembly.

All of these problems come on the heels of the recent resignation of President Terral Ainooson and the ascension of the Vice President Neil MacInnes-Barker to the Presidency of the USG.Accusations of Corruption

At the beginning of the latest general assembly, UMB Student Trustee Tara DeSisto openly accused the Steering Committee of the USG, which includes Speaker Dan McDowell, Budget & Finance Committee Chairman Keith Raboin, and Chief Justice Jeff Poreda, of gross misconduct that, she argues, constitutes corruption and systemic problems that undermine the democratic nature of the student government.

The Student Tustee is accusing these individuals of manipulating the laws of the USG to keep them in power and misappropriating the $600,000 fiscal year budget that the USG is responsible for.

In an interview with the Mass Media, DeSisto stated that “These are not new accusations, they are remarks I have made for two years now about the leadership within the senate. Justice Poreda and Senators Raboin and McDowell are roommates who co-authored the bylaws and the constitution. Check out how the referendum for the bylaws was worded on last year’s ballot. At the end of it all, these leaders found themselves in positions of the most power, in positions where they are ultimate deciders of every decision, and they are newly paid for this work. They never go against each other and specifically anyone who challenges them finds them self ‘Out of Order’. That spells corruption.”

The Student Trustee made some other allegations with some elaborations.

“My discretionary fund was completely cut during the current fiscal year, a decision instigated by Senator Raboin. I also think that that there is something seriously wrong with the fact that 76% of our student body applies for financial aid and that Keith, the person who has the ultimate decision making ability to fund the Legislative Conference Trip where student leaders travel to DC to advocate for more financial aid from the Federal Government, neglected to fund a conference that he himself went to last year. Also note that this is the only funding request this academic year. My understanding was that it was simply because the funding request was put forth by myself.”

When pressed to present evidence for these accusations, DeSisto told the Mass Media that all the evidence necessary to prove the validity these allegations are all a matter of public record.

“If any undergraduate at UMB went up to the 2nd Floor of the Campus Center and went to the USG’s office to get a hold of the minutes, bylaws, and financial records from their student government, they would find that there is ample evidence to these three having their hands in every aspect of every aspect of every decision making process.”

DeSisto declined to provide any further information and a more detailed accounting of her accusations as this article was written, though she demonstrated interest in doing so at a later date.

The accused leaders have strenuously objected to the serious accusations put forward by the Student Trustee.

In response to DeSisto’s accusations, Dan McDowell, the Speaker of the USG, started off by saying that “with the exception of myself, none of the individuals, currently accused of corruption have served in leadership roles prior to this year. I served as CCA Chair second semester last year, during which time I worked mostly with then former Senator DeSisto and former Student Trustee Alex Kulenovic, as well as current President Neil MacInnes-Barker on various projects, and was not ever accused of any wrongdoing. What DeSisto says about us being roommates is true; however this is not a new situation at any school. Students with similar interest room together. The rooming situation was in fact decided prior to any of us being elected to officer positions by the Senate, or appointed in the case of Justice Poreda.”

During a separate interview, Senator Keith Raboin, Chairman of the Budget & Finance Committee, rebuked DeSisto’s claims, which mirrored the responses by Speaker McDowell on the charges of corruption.

On the issue of the bylaws, Senator Raboin said that “the current bylaws are the result of a long and challenging effort involving Senators Jeff Poreda, Dan McDowell, Kimberly Smith, Donna Kulpa, Tim Connor, Rahim Abbasi, Terral Ainooson, John Collins and numerous other individuals. These statutes took many weeks and many Saturday sessions. The process started in December of 2008. The new constitution was endorsed by popular student vote in last year’s spring elections. The new bylaws to accompany the constitution were passed at the beginning of fall 2009.”

As for the stipends appropriated to the members of the leadership of the USG, Senator Raboin stated that there were legitimate reasons for the compensation appropriated to the members of the steering committee.

“These stipends, in my professional opinion, are chiefly a matter of retention. We have a horrible turnover rate with Senate, particularly in leadership positions. My stipend is fixed at $2500 per year. On average, I make $4.50 per hour, more or less. They are not proper wages; they are a small measure to foster competition for the leadership positions and try to retain members over the course of the year. The American Student Government Association ran a compensation survey. Over 70% of student governments pay leadership. Some of these schools use student funds to pay for full tuition scholarships, meal plans, or free preferred housing. Ours are minuscule in comparison, and in my opinion, an effective measure.”

According to Speaker McDowell, who is intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the USG’s financial affairs, the compensation levels are not unreasonable.

“President MacInnes-Barker is entitled to $5,000 every fiscal year, but he’s declined to take this sum due to personal reasons. In contrast, the Vice President receives $3000 per year. The Speaker & Vice Speaker are allowed $3,000 and $1750 per year respectively. The Chairmen of the various committees are entitled to $2,500 per year.”

The recent cut to the Student Trustee’s budget, as mentioned earlier by DeSisto, was another point of contention, but for valid reasons, according to Senator McDowell.

“The Trustee discretionary was in fact cut last year in the budget proposed in the Budget & Finance Committee. This came after news of the discretionary having not been spent after a year or two. About a month or two ago, Chairman Raboin spoke to myself and various other senators about restoring the discretionary so that the Student Trustee may be reimbursed for travel and operating expenses. In fact, there was an attempt to restore it earlier this year with some stipulations, which DeSisto was already following, except for the issue of punctuality at the USG’s general assemblies and filing a regular report on the events taking place within the board of trustees and the school administration. The move to restore the discretionary was defeated in the Budget & Finance Committee after the Student Trustee rejected our conditions.”

President Neil MacInnes-Barker stated the following in regards to his forgone stipend.

“I have a few reasons for doing this. First, with this economy and budget cuts and fee increases for students I don’t feel comfortable taking my fellow students’ hard earned money. Secondly, with the office of student government being under question, I don’t want there to be any concern about what we choose to pay ourselves. Also I am serving in this position as a public servant and though I could certainly use the money, I don’t ever want to lose sight of my commitment to the university and to the students by getting comfortable with a ‘job’. Lastly, I spent as much time and gave this much of myself in different capacities as a senator without pay, so it doesn’t feel new to me.”

The reason, timing, and nature these accusations are not clear. When questioned about these matters, Senator Raboin had this to say.

“I cannot comment on the precise timing and wording of the Student Trustee’s accusations. What I can say is that Trustee DeSisto had a proposal, during a recent meeting of my committee, for a trip to send 10 students to a conference in Washington DC hosted by the National Grassroots Legislative Conference, otherwise known as ‘LegCon’. The original request was for roughly $600 more than the trip could qualify for. This request was denied and never made it to the agenda for the general assembly. DeSisto is doing what she feels is best.”

DeSisto told the Mass Media that, “I am not doing this for personal reasons. I’m stating things that have going on for the past two years. These transgressions are wrong and need to be exposed and rectified. Democracy must be protected.”

According to Senator Raboin and other senators on the Budget & Finance Committee, during her proposal, Trustee DeSisto admitted that she requested more money than what she initially asked for because she thought that the request would be pared down.

These accusations remain rhetoric at the moment as no charges have been filed. Nor has there been any action been taken in the matter. This issue remains an ongoing problem of the USG.The Dark Cloud of Gridlock

On the matter of gridlock in the USG, there seems to a similar line of problems for the troubles within the senators. During the last general assembly, several members of the USG were called out of order after straying from the governing rules of the USG, which follows the well-known rules of parliamentary procedures set forth in Robert’s Rules of Order.

The chief source of disagreement in the USG was largely due to a lack of transparency within the leadership of the USG, according to those who raised objections and concerns during the recent general assembly.

Troubles started brewing early on during the assembly when a proposition, for approving the activation of 26 new clubs, was brought to the floor. A number of senators took issue with the fact that the list for the new clubs and their information was not available.

The Students Events & Organizations Committee Chairman, Travis Henderson, explained that there had been a mix-up in his preparations for the general assembly and promised to supply the current list at a later date.

Senator Donna Kulpa and Jeresiah DesRosiers were among the most vocal in demonstrating dissatisfaction with the lack of punctuality and characterized this behavior as “vexing and unsettling”. However, they still voted to pass this proposal with their fellow senators.

The atmosphere became heated again when a request for funding for a trip to a women’s literacy conference, from students attending a UMB class in the Women’s Studies Department, was brought under discussion.

Senator Kulpa and others inquired the petitioners about whether or not they’ve tried their best to get funding from other sources – including their department and the conference. The petitioners told the USG that they had received relief from these parties, but still didn’t have the adequate funds to go on the trip.

Dissention soon followed as,Senator DesRosiers and several other senators noted that trips should be funded regardless of whether or not it was a school supervised activity. They also noted a discrepancy in the sum on their briefings for the proposals and the actual agenda. The discussion ended after Senator Chanelle Brown was called out of order for straying from the subject of the discussion. The proposal was passed with $810 being allocated to the trip.

The trouble continued with a proposal for the creation of the “Hit the Books Scholarship”, a writing contest open to all UMB students that would award the best three writers gift cards for the campus bookstore.

Senators DesRosiers, Brown, and others raised the issue of amending the proposals to make multiple contests within each grade in the undergraduate student body to make it “fair for everyone”.

The main issue for the advocates of the amendment was that some students “who’ve been at UMB for two or more years will have an unfair advantage when it comes to writing due to a longer tenure at the school.” During the ensuing debate, Senator Brown was called out of order again and asked to leave the proceedings.

The proposition passed with amendments that limited this proposition to a pilot program that would award $200 prizes to the winner. The program will be evaluated, by USG, at the end of the school year to test its results.

A proposal to allocate $4,000 to the executive branch’s discretionary fund failed and will be postponed indefinitely.

The last dramatic moment of the 3rd general assembly of 2010 was a debate over the confirmation of a justice for the judicial branch of the USG. A justice was recommended by President MacInnes-Barker, as it was his constitutional prerogative, after a vetting process conducted by the other justices.

Many senators disagreed with how the process was carried out and expressed that it should have been the President’s sole responsibility to do the vetting and not leave it to the other justices – which might be a question of conflict of interest.

The confirmation hearing was postponed to the next general assembly for the purposes of gathering more information on the candidate justice.

When asked to comment about the apparent gridlock setting into the USG, the leaders and senators of the student government had many things to say on the subject.

Chairman Raboin commented that “I think that the big picture is getting lost to the smaller details of the debates of this year’s general assemblies. However, this is not a large issue with the senate as a whole. This is a vocal minority getting disproportionate floor time. The majority of the senators in the SGA are committed to getting things done regardless of these petty delays. However, this is becoming a serious problem in my personal opinion.”

He also noted that “the main folks who cry foul on these issues are the ones who do not even put forth the basic bit of effort in acquiring the information on the assembly’s agenda.” The solution is to have a five-minute conversation with your committee chair to get the facts of each assembly’s proposals.

“I thought it was getting a bit excessive with the ‘Hit the Books Scholarship’ and its amendments. It was a merit-based program, not a hand out. That’s the nature of competition. You should be judged on the content of your submission, not your credits. Additionally, I had great disappointment in the amendment that did pass. We went from having a sustained, 5 year spring scholarship to having a limited, 1 year ‘pilot’ that would result in a textbook scholarship award granted in April, which isn’t nearly as effective or useful to students. Now we have a competition around midterms and the only students who will feel truly motivated are those taking classes during Summer 1 classes. That is one of those examples where the big picture is being sacrificed for the petty details.”

Senator Brown, who is running for the vice presidency against current incumbent MacInnes-Barker’s ticket, was interviewed about her views on the last session and being calle

out of order by Speaker McDowell.

“I was quite surprised when I was called out of order two times. But I’m not at all intimidated. While I respect Speaker McDowell’s and his attempts to maintain order during our government proceedings, when my job calls on me to speak loudly, question authority and demand transparency, I will do so.”

On the other hand, she felt that the session took far too long to complete and that this problem was partially due to President MacInnes-Barker’s choice to fill an empty seat in the judicial branch.

“President MacInnes-Barker nominated a poor candidate. This confirmation was one of the biggest waste of time was brought to us by current president Barker. He actually stood before the Senate and requested us to approved the appointment of an individual to serve as a judicial officer, even though that individual had not read the bylaws that he’d be responsible for interpreting.”

President MacInnes-Barker had a brief thought about the troubling trend of gridlock in the USG.

“I think that information on the agenda is not be thoroughly review. Many of our senators walk to and from UMB with a copy of the USG Constitution on their person and have their fellow students’ interests in mind when they do their duties as members of the student government. We can and will get through the disagreements by asking ourselves to do our best and by meeting our commitments to the undergraduate student body.”

Other than the topics listed above, the remaining measures on last week’s agenda were passed by the end of the session at around 7p.m. without much fanfare. It is notable that this general assembly was one of the longest sessions of the general assembly in recent history.

Aside from a proposal to fill three empty seats on the senate and the confirmation of the justice, every other proposition was passed – though some were amended before being allowed to pass.

A special session of the USG will be held on Wednesday, in Ballroom B at 4:30pm, to review the confirmation of the candidate justice and to review the ethics within the USG.

About the Contributor
Dillon Zhou served as opinions editor for The Mass Media the following years: 2010-2011