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RUSA Elections Appeals Committee holds hearing on constitutional referendum

The new constitution would take all student activity fees from students in the professional schools and allocate them to the Rutgers University Student Assembly instead of allocating 80 percent of the funding for the professional school governing councils.  – Photo by Pixabay

The Rutgers University Student Assembly’s fall 2020 Elections Appeals Committee held its final hearing last night regarding the proposed amendments to the Assembly’s constitution, which would redirect all student activities fees to the Assembly rather than allocate some funding to the professional school governing councils. 

The Daily Targum previously reported under the current system, the professional school governing councils get 80 percent of the student activity fees from students enrolled in that professional school, while the remaining 20 percent goes to the Assembly. The referendum to change this system passed with a 10 percent turnout. 

Ethan Zang, president of the Engineering Governing Council (EGC) and a School of Engineering senior, and Gaurav Pathak, president of the Pharmacy Governing Council (PGC) and a graduate student in the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy, filed the appeals against the constitutional referendum, alleging constitutional and standing rule violations in the first case, election code violations in the second and specific election code violations against Jason Yu, a Cook Class of 2022 representative and a Rutgers Business School junior, in the third. 

The Assembly was represented by Assembly President Nicholas LaBelle, a Rutgers Business School senior, and Sean Tonra, a Douglass At-large representative and a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. Bilal Y. Ahmed, the Assembly Parliamentarian and a School of Arts and Sciences junior, ran the hearing.

Zang said when the Assembly was founded in 2007, the EGC supported its goal of coordinating governing bodies for advocacy purposes with the condition that the councils could control its budgets, activities and legislation in accordance with the needs of its constituents.

He said the Assembly does not have the jurisdiction to change the way governing councils are funded because it is supposed to work with councils, not legislate down to them.

The current constitution states an organization registered with the University can choose to affiliate with either the Assembly or one of the governing councils for the purpose of receiving funding, but not both.

Zang said the Assembly has never in its history passed legislation affecting the student fees that pay for council-affiliated organizations. He said although all organizations can choose which governing body to affiliate with, it does not mean the Assembly has the right to make decisions regarding organizations that choose to affiliate with the councils. 

“I think this is just mostly stating the scope of the organizations that can apply to (the Assembly) or be (an Assembly)-recognized organization, and it says less about the jurisdiction that it has over all student organizations across Rutgers as a University,” he said.

Tonra cited an article in the constitution that stated the Allocations Board can distribute funds to any registered student organization within the University or any special event, which he said shows the Assembly does have the jurisdiction to change funding for all clubs.

LaBelle said the initial 2007 constitution stated that the funding for the professional schools would be distributed through the Assembly’s Allocations Board. He said the Assembly also works with the Student Activities Business Offices (SABO) to calculate the 80/20 split, which SABO distributes from the Assembly’s account to the governing councils.

Zang said the 80/20 split that existed since the Assembly’s creation had significant support from the governing councils, administrators, deans and students, but for this referendum, the same stakeholders were not included.

LaBelle said the Assembly invited relevant groups to a meeting and said some members of the EGC did attend. He said the Assembly is not responsible for encouraging people to come to future meetings.

The Targum previously reported both Zang and Pathak said they did not know about the constitutional amendment beforehand. Deans from both the School of Engineering and the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy submitted amicus briefs to the Appeals Committee stating they too were not made aware of any changes to the student activity fee until the elections began and said they would not support the change.

LaBelle also said the initial Assembly constitution in 2007 had buy-in from multiple groups because it was the Assembly’s founding document. He said the only approval needed to change it further is from the students.

Ahmed asked whether the Assembly felt the referendum could potentially be rejected by administrators because they were not consulted beforehand. LaBelle said the students are the ones paying the activities fee and have the right to decide how it is used.

“Yes, administration could say no, but I have to trust that this is a student-driven process, and while we have to communicate with administration, it is their job in part to respond to student demands and needs as an administrative body,” he said.

Zang said the Assembly also violated the Standing Rules because it did not involve the Student Fee Advisory Committee (SFAC), which is charged with making recommendations on potential changes to the fee each year. He said the rules do not outline any distinctions regarding what situations the SFAC can be bypassed, which he said shows that all changes should go through this committee.

Ahmed brought up a piece of cross-council legislation that did not involve the SFAC which limited yearly student fee increases to no more than two percent. He asked whether this legislation shows precedent that the Assembly can bypass the SFAC, which Zang said it did not.

“It’s not proposing any actual changes to the actual student fee. The student fee remained $71, it remained 80/20,” he said. “It’s only proposing that if someone were to change the student fee, they can only do it by less than or equal to two percent annually … They’re trying to regulate the process by which student fees can be changed in the future.”

On this same legislation, Tonra said the idea that the SFAC deals with “various changes” with the student fee includes regulating the increase in fees. He said since this legislation did impose a change to the fee without using the SFAC, it sets the precedent that the SFAC is not required.

The second case dealt with the election code and voter information. Zang said throughout the entire election, the Assembly’s website listed every bill related to the issues posed in the election except for the constitutional amendments bill.

Labelle said the Assembly’s secretary was responsible for uploading the bills to the website and received disciplinary action for his failure to do so, but had no malicious intent.

The Assembly sent out emails to all undergraduates about the election which included background information on the referendum, including links to the proposed and current constitutions along with a brief description of the various updates to the document. 

“On the subject of student fee distribution, there’s only one sentence here that gives any information about why they’re proposing the changes they’re proposing and what exactly is going to happen,” Zang said.

Zang said the lack of access to the bill combined with the single sentence in the document shared to students violate the fairness clause of the election because voters did not have access to crucial details regarding the referendum.

He said providing the proposed and current constitutions alone do not provide students with insight on the Assembly’s motivations or how other groups, like the governing councils or administrators, will be affected.

Tonra said the proposed constitution document included a link to documents from the Constitutional Reform Ad-Hoc Committee, which he said provided details on all the changes to the constitution.

LaBelle said information was available but said it could have been clearer. 

“We can acknowledge that there were faults in the way things were written and how the information was presented in the explanatory text,” LaBelle said. “But the greater point to acknowledge (is) the information, while maybe not as directly understandable, was present on the ballot and in other sources as well.”

Pathak said the referendum was unfair specifically for pharmacy students because the Assembly only has jurisdiction over undergraduate students, but fifth- and sixth-year students in the six-year pharmacy program are considered graduate students. These students could not vote in the referendum, yet their student activity fees are also being affected.

The current constitution states that 100 percent of the student fees from graduate students in the pharmacy school will be directly dispersed to the PGC Allocations Board, but the proposed constitution states the graduate student fees will be decided by the Assembly and the pharmacy student government.

“(The Assembly) is attempting to use this referendum to gain control (or) some sort of jurisdiction over graduate student fees,” Pathak said. “I would argue that should (the Assembly) have this jurisdiction over graduate student fees, it is only logical and fair to give those same pharmacy graduate students — who they’re attempting to have control over their fees — the ability to vote in this referendum, which was obviously not the case.”

LaBelle said the Assembly is willing to consider options to remediate the clause regarding pharmacy student fees but said this issue should not invalidate the entire referendum.

In the final case, Zang said Yu, the election manager, violated the Election Code’s neutrality clause by releasing vote count updates in the Assembly’s Slack channel, which he said is not a public forum, as a way of encouraging channel members to get people to vote.

Yu said he released vote count updates because he was required to keep the Assembly informed throughout the election. He also said the Slack channel is open to the public and has some non-Assembly members.

Zang said it is likely that Yu, who was also the chair of the Constitutional Reform Ad-Hoc Committee, as well as other members within the Assembly, would be in favor of passing the referendum, and said it can be presumed that they would be more likely to seek out other voters in favor of the referendum.

He also cited a message in the channel from Yu that said more voters were needed to “pass the constitution,” which he said can be interpreted as Yu supporting the constitution.

Yu said he wanted to ensure the Assembly met the 10 percent voter turnout threshold to make the election valid and convey the urgency of the situation, and that no direct evidence was presented showing he systematically tried to sway the election.

When asked why he did not also share the vote counts with the Assembly’s email list in order to bring the urgency of the situation to a wider range of people, Yu said it was unnecessary for the public to know.

If the vote count results were made public, Zang said, communities outside of the Assembly would have been more aware of the urgency of the election.

“This information either needs to be released to everybody, or it needs to be released only to the people who can see it like the elections manager and the appropriate internal affairs people,” Zang said. “Quite frankly, any middle ground is unfair to the voters at large.”

The Elections Appeals Committee is scheduled to reconvene later today to come to a verdict on the three cases.

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