Student Council marches on in its war on accountability

6 mins read

Several weeks ago, Student Council announced that all its meetings would take place off the record. The Phoenix was hopeful that the organization might reconsider its decision.

But instead, StuCo decided to do the exact opposite. According to the Daily Gazette’s April 2 StuCo report, starting next week, not only will all StuCo meetings be off the record, but from now on, the individual opinions and votes of its members will be kept secret.

“[S]ometimes people don’t want their names attached to their stance,” said StuCo Co-President Jason Heo ’15.

For those who have sympathy for Heo’s position, the Phoenix has a friendly suggestion: don’t run for elected office. But given that Student Council is a body composed entirely of elected representatives, this decision is utterly indefensible.

Indeed, Heo’s quote is so ridiculous that one might confuse it for a belated April Fool’s Day joke. But make no mistake, our Student Council co-president has just seriously claimed that he and his colleagues may hide their votes on matters of potential importance to the student body.

That a democratic body cannot sequester itself from public scrutiny would seem to be obvious. Allowing elected members the right to keep their views and decisions from the public eye does more than just decrease representation. It is antithetical to its very definition.

But given StuCo’s recent trend of decreasing accountability, it appears that the organization’s members are utterly incapable of understanding even this most basic principle of democratic governance. We will therefore explain the problem using ideas found in a document that we hope even StuCo can understand: its own constitution.

According to the Student Council constitution’s mission statement, StuCo “must strive in all its actions to be both transparent and accountable.” On this alone, we would contend that StuCo’s action is unconstitutional.

But the document goes further. In its procedures section, the constitution states that “all motions shall be decided by an open vote, and each individual vote cast on every motion shall be recorded in the minutes.” Thus, their decision does not merely transgress on the constitution’s theoretical principle of transparency. It is an explicit violation.

It also certainly puts to rest any illusions that StuCo’s leaders seek to increase the group’s accountability and transparency, for students cannot hold their representatives accountable if they are forbidden from knowing how they vote or what their stances are. Furthermore, if StuCo members decide to run for more than one term, voters will be unable to scrutinize their records, as no records will exist.

But most of all, we are curious as to what it is that StuCo members are trying to hide. Given its notoriety as an organization that accomplishes very little, why does it suddenly need to shroud itself in secrecy? In other words, what are its members afraid of us knowing about them? Their opinions on subsidized SEPTA tickets? How they feel about their new office?

Indeed, this decision is particularly disconcerting precisely because it exacerbates the disconnect between Student Council and the people they represent. After all, it is difficult to connect with our representatives when we are forbidden to know what they stand for.

In spite of all this, StuCo has attempted to defend these policy changes. In today’s letter to the editor, Heo and StuCo’s other co-president, Lanie Schlessinger ’15, state that these changes were not only benign, but needed. Campus media, they argue, “have not been sufficiently accurate in portraying the projects we have been working on or the processes by which we make decisions.”

The term “sufficiently accurate” is telling, for it implies that StuCo gets to be the arbiter of deciding how its policies and decisions are to be discussed and interpreted. Even if reporters have not done due diligence in covering their meetings, surely the solution is not to give StuCo complete power over the presentation of their policies.

In addition, Heo and Schlessinger chronicled all the new steps StuCo is taking to “further increase transparency,” which consist of displaying their minutes (which, incidentally, have not been updated since March 4) and virtual comment box in more prominent locations, tabling at Sharples and creating a new Facebook page. Clearly, Heo and Schlessinger are confused as to what the word “transparency” means, for none of the steps they list actually increase the ability of those unaffiliated with StuCo to independently evaluate its policies, decisions and practices. What StuCo is doing amounts to nothing more than an aggressive PR campaign.

StuCo must therefore immediately reverse course and reinstate its policies of open voting and on-the-record meetings. Its constitution commands it. Democracy demands it. And most of all, students deserve to judge for themselves if the people they elect to represent them are doing their jobs.

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