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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.

Student government plans to increase engagement with campus

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Many students have questions about what the Student Government Organization does, and this year the organization hopes to better define their role on campus. To do so, the student group plans to invite the community into their meetings, revamp their constitution, and use their budget more efficiently.

Led by co-presidents Josie Hung ’18 and David Pipkin ’18, SGO consists of two branches according to their website: the Executive Board, which makes choices regarding student initiatives and campus policy; and Student Senate, which reviews such decisions and offers support and ideas for other SGO initiatives.  

This fall, the group has dedicated their meetings to identifying how they can be the best voice between students and administration — a mission that hasn’t always been solidified in the past. Roman Shemakov ’20, Chair of Student Budgeting Committee, believes the group has the potential to improve its efficiency.

“We are trying to figure out what SGO has been doing, is doing, and should be doing,” Shemakov said. “We imagine [taking] a more concrete and collaborative route where student government does not just exist but is genuinely a body that can hear concerns, respond to those concerns, and make an institutional impact.”

One method, according to Hung, is to make SGO more accessible to the student body. She believes that if SGO becomes a more transparent body, students will feel more comfortable voicing their thoughts and, in turn, will allow the organization to better represent them.

One idea involves opening select SGO meetings up to the public and locating them in a convenient place like Sharples. Another includes planning regular town hall style meetings to give community members a platform to voice their thoughts. In the past, SGO held numerous study breaks that several members of SGO agree weren’t as effective as they could have been.

As of now, many underclassmen are unsure of SGO’s presence on campus.

“A lot of freshman don’t even know we have a student government,” Vinay Keefe ’21 said.

Alec White ’21 knew of SGO’s existence, but not of its impact.

“I knew we had a student government but I hadn’t heard how to get involved with it or what they have been doing this year so far,” White said.

Pipkin also looks to reevalute SGO’s usage of its funds. According to him, the group used up almost half of their $18,000 to $24,000 annual budget on food during the numerous study breaks in the past years that he’s been involved with SGO.

“Money isn’t just for cupcakes,” he said. “We don’t want to buy more than what we need or just burn out our budget at the end of the year; we want to use our money to provide services and amenities that are not yet available on campus.”

To make better use of their budget, the group is discussing a variety of options ranging from funding student initiatives to donating the remaining funds to the Dean’s Discretionary Fund, Pipkin said. The goal, according to Pipkin, is to fill in the gap when things start lagging behind on campus.

Some of their most recent initiatives included prompting the administration to provide free SEPTA passes into Philidelphia for students; establishing the Health and Wellness Committee; and funding Free Pads for Undergrads, which provides free sanitary products in all bathrooms.

But even some of those initiatives aren’t complete yet, Pipkin said. Not all the bathrooms have sanitary napkin baskets, and there is a limit to how many SEPTA passes are distributed every semester. Part of this year’s mission will be to expand both of those initiatives by turning to the budget for help.

“We should walk before we should run,” Pipkin said. “Part of progress is ensuring what you already have is sufficient and functioning, so we will build on what is already here first.”

In addition to new projects, SGO is hoping to clear up organizational details. Both presidents and Shemakov added that many parts of the current constitution aren’t fleshed out. There are gaps in information and not enough detail, so the group is tweaking the document to be clearer and more concise.

To do so, Shemakov explained, the group plans to split the constitution into three different documents: bylaws — easily amendable policies such as how to file a motion and where and when the group convenes; rules of conduct — rules regarding budgeting, committees, and vacancies, which are amendable with two-thirds of entire SGO approval; and the constitution — more permanent rules that include how to hold an election and what it takes to pass a referendum. The constitution used to be amendable with two-thirds of Executive Board approval and soon will require the majority of the entire student body to change. The details of the new vote have yet to be decided.     

However, SGO’s capacity for change is limited by the fact that it is run by students who are only around for four years.

“It’s important to remember that we are here for a very short time, and there are a very limited amount of things we can do,” Shemakov said. “Our goal has been establishing precedents, rules, and institutional barriers that make the process of student government more efficient.”

Jason Jin ’19, chair of student outreach, is most excited to bring new features to the SGO website, such as a Facebook feed that updates the happenings of the administration and SGO, and an interactive calendar that includes upcoming SGO events.  

Hung looks forward to collaboration across different committees and hopes to address the lack of diversity in the arts department by beginning a dialogue between the chairs of the Visual and Performing Arts Committee and Diversity Committees.

Pipkin added that fostering collaboration now is going to make SGO as an organization more functional in the future.

“From time to time, the right hand [of the organization] doesn’t know what the left is doing,” he said. “By building cross-collaboration, you’re building institutional memory; being able to know not just your interest level but someone else’s can make you a better leader.”

According to Pipkin, some of these discussions will come to fruition in late October, when the new round of senators have settled into their roles.

OSE absorbs SAC, all-campus event funding

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The Social Affairs Committee, which previously served as the main funding body for all-campus events and parties, no longer exists, primarily because its function of providing alcohol funding for parties became obsolete last year. The Office of Student Engagement will take over this funding responsibility.

Co-President of Student Government Christine Kim ’17, who was previously a member of SAC, explained that a number of factors played a role in the decision to disband the committee and create a new funding process.

One of SAC’s primary purposes was to allocate alcohol money under the guise of DJ funding, Kim explained, referring to the practice by which clubs or groups hoping to host a party would bring a proposal to the committee asking for a certain amount of money to pay a DJ, and then use those funds to purchase alcohol instead. However, in the fall of 2014, SAC was no longer allowed to provide this “DJ funding.”

“Once that was gone, there was no point in SAC being there,” Kim said. All logistics for all-campus parties and events became the responsibility of the OSE, while SAC continued to make funding decisions, Kim explained.

According to Kim, this led to a great deal of miscommunication between the OSE and SAC and complicated the logistics of large-scale events such as Halloween and the winter formal. Additionally, the unpaid members of SAC were required to set up and clean up for these events, and were thus limited from fully participating in these events.

However, despite the elimination of DJ funding, SAC continued to provide party funding. Kim said that the fraternities consistently asked for, and were granted, between $200 and $300 each week for party decorations. For larger events, such as Delta Upsilon’s annual party during Worthstock, Margaritaville, SAC shelled out a more extensive amount.

Thus, even though SAC was no longer allowed to provide alcohol funding, students continued to ask for party funding, though Kim acknowledged that these funding requests were fraternity-heavy and that few other student groups requested money or held parties.

As SAC came to seem increasingly obsolete, Kim and Steve Sekula ’17, fellow co-president of SGO, met with the former and current heads of the Student Budget Committee, which distributes the student activities fee between groups, clubs, and SAC. The students discussed a new event-funding process and decided to streamline it all through the OSE.

Sekula explained that the OSE had created a new portal where students seeking funding could input all of their event information and ensure the security of party permits, equipment, and other necessities before receiving funding.

Kim elaborated on the multiple simplifying features of the new process. Formerly, when student groups holding events would receive funding from SAC, the committee would have to send liaisons to check that the groups were using the money for their stated purposes.

“This wasn’t being coordinated well,” Kim said, explaining that the OSE, meanwhile, would have to ensure that groups having parties had secured permits and were using wet spaces rather than dry ones, as well as coordinating other forms of event assistance such as Swat Team.

“The real purpose of SAC was really confusing for a lot of people,” Kim said. Students would attend SAC meetings, but their proposals would not fit under the bylines of what the committee funded, so they would be sent to the Forum for Free Speech, to seek departmental funding, to the OSE, or to the movie committee.

“They didn’t know where to go,” Kim said. Now, however, all of these funding bodies and more are available to select as possible sources, to be evaluated by the OSE, through the new funding portal.

Kim emphasized that students would still have some say over event funding.

“The OSE will maintain the student aspect of student input in funding decisions,” Kim said. Kim said that the OSE interns would have input into the funding decisions, along with whoever is hired to replace Assistant Director of Student Activities, Leadership, and Greek Life Mike Elias, who leaves the college to take a position at Haverford College this week.

Kim said she hopes that the new, simplified funding process will lead to an increase in parties by groups other than fraternities.

“We’re hoping that campus culture will revive Paces and Olde Club parties,” Kim said. “I think it’ll happen, because it’s a much cleaner process for smaller student groups to propose and they are now given a legitimate support system through the OSE.”

Kim added that she thought the process would be imperfect, but that SGO and others would be open to change.

“If we need to reevaluate and say, ‘this isn’t working out,’ I’m sure that SGO and other people who have the power to shift these processes will change them the way they need to be changed,” Kim said.

Two open meetings to explain the new funding process, as well as a revamped chartering process for groups and clubs, will be held on Monday from 7-8 PM and 8-9 PM.

Debates over and shifts to the ways in which the college funds alcohol for parties (or not) are not new. A Daily Gazette article by Lauren Stokes ’09 discusses that as early as 2005, students were concerned about the ways in which the college provides funding for alcohol.

“…The school must stop its de facto funding of alcohol for reasons of potential legal liability,” the article reads. “As a result, enforcement of SAC funding will become more strict. Not only has the administration been alerted to the most prevalent ‘work-arounds,’ but SAC will start asking party proposers specifically about where they’re getting money for alcohol,” the article reads, listing a number of other changes to the party funding process.

Like Kim and others, students in the past were concerned about the shifts in the college social scene that would occur if SAC stopped funding alcohol.

“Some students expressed concern that the fraternities would consume the party scene at Swarthmore, but most believed that ‘Swattie ingenuity’ would be able to overcome that danger,” Stokes wrote.

“Most students don’t want to lose the ‘free activities’ so important to Swarthmore culture, but a few students pointed out the fallacy of equating ‘activities’ with ‘Paces parties,’” Stokes continued. “These students hoped that the crackdown on alcohol funding would inspire ‘more open thinking about the student activities fee,’ inspiring proposals for new social events instead of more ‘tired’ Paces parties.”

Editorial: the new SGO constitution

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Elections for the Executive Board of the Student Government Organization came to a close at midnight last night. While the results of the election are yet unknown, this election was unique in that it also offered students a chance to ratify SGO’s new constitution. One third of the student body needs to vote in favor of the new of constitution in order for it to be ratified. The major change to the constitution is an alteration of the structure of the student senate in order to allow for more senators, representing more diverse groups on campus, to participate in SGO. While we at the Phoenix commend the new constitution for its endeavor to better represent the diverse interests of the student body, we also feel that the new constitution is lacking in that the newly structured student senate does not include representatives from certain key groups on campus and because the new constitution is incredibly ambiguous in regards to the specific powers and duties of SGO.

Instead of 10 senators, the student senate will now have 22 senators made up of 16 elected senators and 6 representative senators. The representative senators will be designated by their respective affinity groups with two senators from the Intercultural Center, one senator from the Black Cultural Center, one senator from the Interfaith community, one senator from the Greek community, and one senator from the Student Athlete Advisory Committee.

We at the Phoenix believe that the addition of these representative senators is an important means of giving a voice to the various affinity groups on campus that might not otherwise be present in SGO. Nevertheless, we feel that the allocation of the representatives to the various affinity groups is somewhat arbitrary. Specifically, there are no representatives included from the Women’s Resource Center, and though there are two representatives from the IC, the IC is such a diverse organization that two representatives are not enough. For example, the interests of a group like i20 or the Swarthmore Queer Union are very distinct from the interests of a group like Enlace or the Swarthmore Asian Organization. Each of these affinity groups represents large populations of students on campus, and the absence of any senators representing the distinct interests of these groups in SGO appears to perpetuate the problem of representational inequity that was the source of the initial constitution change.

Nevertheless, it is unclear how much this dearth of representation for these affinity groups will negatively affect the experiences of their members at Swarthmore insofar as the actual power and responsibility of SGO is largely absent in the new constitution. The constitution is incredibly vague in explaining the duties of the SGO stating only, “SGO’s principle duties include the allocation of the Student Activities Budget, management of the group chartering process, appointment of students to Swarthmore College committees, and meeting with Swarthmore College faculty, staff, and the Board of Managers. Additionally, the SGO will encourage campus-wide discussions and engagement and actively solicit student opinion.”

While the allocation of the SAB is clearly a very serious task, the constitution never explains the procedures of, or criteria for, the allocation. Additionally, which senators are involved in the allocation remains unmentioned as well. The rest of the stated duties of SGO appear incredibly vague. In particular, meeting with members of the community and encouraging campus-wide discussions indicate very little about SGO’s actual power or the tasks that SGO performs. Ultimately, while we at the Phoenix appreciate SGO’s efforts to build a more diverse and fairly representative student senate in their new constitution, we feel that more affinity groups should be accounted for in this representative senate and that SGO’s new constitution should better explain the power and responsibilities of the organization.

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