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Low SGO attendance bars vote, special election to go on

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Swarthmore’s Student Government Organization announced Sunday that it will hold a special election following the resignation of a co-president, at-large senator, and the chair of student life last week. The group debated passing an amendment to keep the election within the group but scrapped it after there were not enough senators present to hold a vote.

SGO did pass a key amendment on Sunday which allows the Senate to vote on impeachments and constitutional amendments. Previously, these powers were held only by the Executive Board, which includes the committee chairs and co-presidents. The co-presidents and the Executive Board have been allowing the Senate to vote on amendments for the past two semesters, despite this process being unconstitutional.

“It’s about time,” said co-president David Pipkin ’18. “They were pretending that the amendment passed last year … It put me in a bind at the beginning of this year because they amended the constitution, but they didn’t keep records of who voted, so I didn’t know what amendments actually passed and what didn’t pass.”

Members also debated whether a special election following the resignations of three representatives should be held internally, or should be school-wide. The constitutional review committee proposed an amendment that would have made the special election internal, with only current SGO candidates eligible to run and vote. However, since three-fourths of SGO members were required to hold a vote, the amendment could not be voted on.

Co-president David Pipkin said that that the group would be instituting a policy next semester making some of the weekly meetings mandatory, and some “come when you can.” He acknowledged that attendance was a problem but attributed it to the frequency of the meetings; members of SGO are theoretically only required to attend two meetings a month.

“It’s an irrational expectation for someone who signed up to do half as much work to be doing as much work as I’m doing,” said Pipkin. “I think there are ways of reforming the requirements in which we can have enough attendance to hold votes but we’re not making unreasonable demands on people’s time.”

Nagyon Kim ’20 said that that the attendance problem deals a serious blow to SGO’s credibility with the student body.

“Every member of SGO was elected for a reason. They were elected by the student body, and they signed up to become public servants,” said Kim. “It reflects poorly on SGO as a whole because if you’re not showing up to the meetings, then that’s less representation for whoever you represent in the SGO meetings.”

According to Kim, the student body perceives SGO to be ineffective.

He said, “I can definitely say that SGO, in terms of public perception, lacks legitimacy, and I think it’s our job as SGO to build on that legitimacy so that other student groups can look to us as a resource.”

Sam Wallach Hanson ’18 is one of the students running for co-president in the special election and released his platform online this past Tuesday. The platform, according to Hanson, is a satirical play on the ineffectiveness of the body. To the question, “Why do you want to be SGO co-president?” Hanson responded, “Well, I’m taking three credits next semester, so I’m mostly just looking for something to fill my spare time.”

Hanson said he thought the tone of the platform would resonate with students.

“I think the fact that the joke is funny at all says something about the way SGO has functioned on campus for the last few years and the way we perceive student government here.”

One of the reasons for this negative attitude, according to Gilbert Orbea ’19, leader of the constitutional review committee and another candidate for co-president, is that the student body doesn’t realize how much power SGO has. He emphasized that the group has affected student life in ways that many don’t even realize, and that it has followed through on ideas gathered from student surveys.

“Realize that we actually do have power. We have a big budget; we can make projects and initiatives happen. If you come to us with plans, with an idea, and you say, ‘Goddammit, I want to get this done! I’m a student here; this matters to me,’ we’ll do it.”

SGO has a total budget of $23,000. As of now, it has spent a total of $3,746.74. Also, SGO has allocated $4,000 to the student organizations committee and the Hackathon. That $4,000 allocated to student orgs has been technically “spent,” but no groups have applied to use that $4,000 yet. The $4,000 is used to fund student groups that pop up after the spring chartering process. The money spent on this semester’s Hackathon has not yet been accounted for by SBC.

Nancy Yuan ’19, the current class of 2019 senator and another co-president candidate, believes that the discontent with SGO is because people have asked for changes that have not been enacted.

“I think there’s a lot of discontent even within SGO itself, and that’s also probably a reflection of the general student body’s attitude as well … They see that it’s been a semester and there hasn’t been sweeping changes, so I think part of that is understandable because this year SGO started late, but at the same time there’s some certain changes that people have asked for and haven’t seen happen,” Yuan said. “So even people within SGO are trying to question [the situation], because we’re all volunteering our time to do this, and they’re wondering whether their time is worthwhile.”

Despite being unable to vote on whether to keep the election internal, the group debated the issue. One argument made during last Sunday’s meeting was that because of the short notice, there would be low turnout for the election and students wouldn’t have time to make an informed decision.

“I guarantee less than 30 percent of people are going to vote in this election,” said Orbea, “And somehow it’s going to represent who’s best among the student body to run SGO.” The constitution requires 30 percent turnout in referendums, but the policy doesn’t apply to special elections.

During last Sunday’s meeting, co-president Josie Hung argued that some members of the student body who aren’t currently affiliated with SGO may be just as qualified as current representatives, if not more, for the open positions.
“Being in SGO could be a lot of experience, but there’s also experience that comes from working in different college committees, working in different fields, doing research or being in affinity groups,” said Hung. “I don’t know if we should limit it to being in SGO this semester because frankly, we haven’t done much yet.”

Orbea argued that experience in the organization is valuable in deciding who should take the seats.

“They have been in SGO for months,” Orbea said about current senators and executive board members. “They would know among SGO’s member base who’s best and most qualified, whereas the student body may not have that information readily available.”

Yuan believes that although institutional memory is important to some positions, the election should still be open to students.

“I think that’s how it should be, and I actually voiced this during the Senate meeting … This shouldn’t be some exclusive club, it should be accessible,” Yuan said. “We’re the Student Government Organization, right? It’s all about the students, so I don’t think it should be kept within. Yes, it should be important for certain positions to have institutional memory, because you understand the organization’s structures and how it runs, but that’s not to say that someone with no SGO experience can’t provide valuable insight.”

According to Yuan, SGO could be doing more for the student body than it currently is.

“When [the] school is handling situations with affinity groups or … certain incidents flare up, and that’s adding extra stress to students, that’s something that we can help with, but SGO has actually avoided doing because they didn’t want to seem like they were taking sides or didn’t want to seem like they were going to get into something that was too tough to manage,” Yuan said. “I think this shouldn’t be something we’re avoiding, because it’s issues that have been affecting the wellbeing of students directly, then we should try to improve that.”
Senators also expressed concern about the likely situation that a member of SGO is elected co-president or chair of student life. In this case, the executive board would likely override the provision in the constitution that requires a special election when there is an open seat.

SGO’s main goals for next semester include ramping up communication with the student body as well as implementing its rewritten constitution, which has been reduced in length from sixteen pages to four.

SGO sees resignations, calls for change

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UPDATE: The previous SGO Constitution can be accessed at http://wayback.archive-it.org/230/20120413210441/http://swarthmorestuco.tumblr.com/

Co-president Josie Hung ’19, Chair of Student Life Ivan Lomeli ’19 and Senator Christian Galo ’20 resigned from Swarthmore’s Student Government Organization last week as the group debated improvements on its structure, communication, and efficiency. The body will hold elections for these open positions after winter break.

In an e-mail to SGO members announcing her resignation, Hung said she left the post for “personal and mental health reasons.”  She also described her goals for the organization, which included making structural changes and increasing its inclusivity and ability to represent all students. Hung expressed frustration at the difficulty of achieving these goals.

“There are times when I was disappointed that the effort and time dedicated to pushing for these changes did not play out to the same degree in results,” she said in the e-mail. “However, I encourage people to still engage with these complex issues, no matter how difficult they are to address.”

SGO Senator Akshay Srinivasan ’21 echoed Hung’s call for persistence.

“I respect her decision,” he said, “and I hope we can carry on and enact the plans she had set out to achieve.”

Galo was also annoyed with SGO’s structure, which was one of his reasons for leaving. He expressed a desire for the group to experiment with other forms of team organizing. As a first-year in SGO, he said, it was unclear what his committee actually did, and he spent significant time discussing that. The Academic Affairs Committee, according to Galo, doesn’t have much power other than to make suggestions to the Chair of Academic Affairs, because the Chair is the only one included in the college committee meetings where the action actually happens. Galo was more interested in committee work than debating SGO structural politics.

“I felt like I was just sitting there listening to people deliberate on what it meant for SGO to do something,” he said about Senate meetings. “I don’t understand why I’m a necessary part of this conversation because I’m not saying anything.”

Last week, senators discussed the effectiveness of the organization’s use of point teams and committees to turn initiatives into the concrete proposals it submits to the administration. SGO is structured on a system in which senators appoint members of the Senate to committees covering different policy areas. These committees then meet and draft proposals advocating for a certain policy which can be sent to members of the administration. However, these committees have vastly differing obligations. For example, the Student Life Committee has only four members, but its responsibilities are vast.

“Anything that’s not sustainability or academics could essentially fall into student life: dining, dorms, everything else,” said David Pipkin, co-president of SGO.

This is what necessitated the creation of point teams, which are more informal teams — not listed on the website — created to deal with specific issues, like dining for example.

Appointing point teams on a voluntary basis, according to Pipkin, “makes more sense … because frankly, you have to advocate for things over a longer period of time, and you have to do it consistently, and having only four people do that for a wide range of issues isn’t a rational expectation.”

Srinivasan argued during last Sunday’s SGO meeting that the committee and point team system, as it exists now, takes too long to turn ideas into concrete results, and the fact that many of their directives overlap adds to the confusion.

“It becomes really convoluted when we try to create all kinds of teams to address problems and we don’t have a clear directive,” said Srinivisian. “It’s not necessarily that the committees aren’t effective, it’s just that it’s really hard to find a time to meet and then review for things that I think, personally, are very simple and we can do quicker.”

The body has created a Constitutional Review Committee to fix some of the structural flaws that give SGO the impression of being inefficient. Pipkin said that the document was put together hastily and has some practical issues that need to be addressed.

“SGO as an entity has in its construction deep flaws,” said Pipkin. “The SGO constitution … as it exists now was drafted because they lost the first one, so they did it hurriedly without really thinking through everything.”

One of the major problems with the document, according to Pipkin, was that Senate elections and the executive board elections take place in different semesters. Executive Board elections happen in March, but Senate elections six weeks into the fall semester so first-years could participate. Pipkin suggested that having Senate elections in April would allow the executive board and Senate to plan their initiatives for the next year and be ready to get to work on the first day of the fall semester.

“The fact that I have an executive board for four months of half student government is hobbling,” he said. “And then you have the added problem [that] you had the school year start later than usual.”

Also, while Senators are on the committees and have the power to vote on who is on those committees, the constitution doesn’t give the Senate any power to vote on amendments. All this power is given to the executive board. The Constitutional Review Committee is working to change this.

Srinivasan believes the new constitution needs to give the Senate more of a voice and include clear goals for each committee. A voting process for passing amendments should also be present, and the document should be four pages and easily readable.

SGO has put a focus this year on listening to different student groups and bringing their concerns to Senate meetings. While it has received input, Srinivasan believes it hasn’t been able to make big policy pushes because of the long lines of communication between the Senate, point teams, and committees.  

Srinivasan said, “We try to get a lot of input, we’re hosting more events to get input, but the big thing isn’t that we’re not getting their views. It’s that we’re not actually able to act on them very quickly because if I went to visit SASA, they gave me something to do, and I brought it up in a meeting two weeks later, it would be sent to a committee and we’d do something in like March.”

SGO has also been focusing on being more transparent and communicating better with the student body, Srinivasan said. It has worked to increase the number of e-mails it sends out, and to be more transparent in its operations, especially when it comes to the charter process for new clubs. One of the reasons this is the case, according to Galo, is that many students just don’t care what SGO is doing.

Pipkin noted that part of this problem comes from the fact that Swarthmore has issues with communication in general. SGO is currently trying to use the TV screen in Pearson that displays notifications as a place to reach students.

Despite getting a late start to the semester and coming up against structural problems, SGO has lofty policy goals this year. These include striving for greater transparency, clarifying the club chartering process, and revising and simplifying SGO’s constitution.

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