Beginning a tense meeting, ASUCR President Aram Ayra announced that he and two other Executive Cabinet (ECAB) members, Vice President of External Affairs Johnathan Li and Executive Vice President Carisha Moore, vetoed the finance allocation of $35,000 to the R’Gear program, an initiative to distribute sweatshirts to freshmen.
“We don’t think at this time committing $35,000 to R’Gear is something that’s in the best interest of students,” said Ayra to the senate during public forum. He explained that the ECAB veto is permitted through the ASUCR constitution, specifically Article IV Section F as well as Chapter XIX of the ASUCR bylaws.
Article IV Section F states that ECAB has the authority to “Veto legislation passed by the Senate, provided the legislation did not pass with a unanimous vote of all Senators present.” It also stipulates that the veto must be issued no more than seven days after the vote. The senate vote on R’Gear was split 9-3-1 during the Feb. 28 meeting and the veto was signed by Ayra, Moore and Li within the seven-day time limit. Chapter XIX also outlines similar requirements to veto a bill. It additionally states that the senate has 14 business days to override the veto and that all members who voted on the legislation must be present during the override discussion and voting.
Ayra reminded the senate that they need a unanimous vote to override an ECAB veto and encouraged them to “look into that.” He reassured the senate that this is “not a personal attack, this is not an agenda” and stated that he believes there are many other better ways to spend the money rather than “dropping it on sweatshirts at the start of the warm season.” He later said that there are plenty of areas where that money could go, citing examples of a struggling R’Pantry, the R’Garden which is losing funding in June and a student kitchen that needs part-time staff.
After nearly 40 minutes of explaining his rationale to the senate, Ayra stated that he felt it was “ridiculous that I have to stand here and lecture everybody on why … for example, working with the bookstore to lower the prices on the sweaters we have there is a better idea.”
Once Moore opened up the speaker’s list, CHASS Senator Solomon Demeku was the first to speak, initially inquiring about the process of overriding the vote. Ayra replied that since finance allocations were voted on by the senate, they have the power to veto it. Demeku stated that he understood every point Ayra made but disliked how Ayra went about vetoing the vote, raising that Ayra did not consult all of the Executive Cabinet or call a meeting to vote on the veto.
“I find it a little problematic that not all members of the ECAB were invited to the meeting and secondly, I find it a little problematic that the senate can vote on things and then the ECAB can just go ahead and override it,” stated Demeku. Demeku believed Ayra’s intentions were in the right place, but explained that it would have been “wiser” and “more democratic” to involve the senate in decision-making.
Demeku began to raise his voice, confronting Ayra on what he perceived as an abuse of power on the part of ECAB. “The point that I am trying to make, and I think that’s actually pissing me off, is the fact that you’re pretty much coming up here and telling me how you have this opinion and how you acted the right way and how it’s in your position to vote this way without regard to the senate,” stated Demeku, noting that the senators have “independent minds” and were elected without political parties. He chastised Ayra for not going about the entire situation differently and promised to revise the bylaws.
The Highlander reached out to Demeku for an interview but he was unable to respond due to an illness.
Shortly after this exchange, Vice President of Finance Jose Cortez-Hernandez argued that Ayra had no authority to veto the R’Gear expense because it was a finance allocation, not a piece of legislation as stated in the constitution. “The measures that they’re using to try and veto this aren’t exactly stated in our constitution,” said Cortez-Hernandez, who filed for a review of the veto by the ASUCR Judicial Council, which was heard on Monday, March 12 at 8 p.m. in the senate chambers.
Cortez-Hernandez mentioned similar concerns in an interview on Friday, stating that no one in the senate or on ECAB knew of the veto until Ayra announced it at the meeting. Additionally, Cortez-Hernandez provided The Highlander with a 12-page document consisting of a timeline of events leading up to the meeting. The document states that ECAB met at 5 p.m., the hour before the Feb. 28 meeting, where Cortez-Hernandez and Vice Chair of Personnel Andrea Cuevas presented the R’Gear proposal, with Ayra and Moore in attendance. During this meeting, no issues were raised regarding the project, says Cortez-Hernandez. On March 1, UCR’s purchasing and procurement department sent out the purchase order which was accepted by the supplier, CBL, creating a contractual agreement.
By March 7, no ECAB meeting was called and, according to the document, seven out of 10 ECAB members, including professional staff members, were not notified of any meeting. After the veto on Wednesday, ASUCR Executive Director Laurie Sinclair informed Cortez-Hernandez that CBL would charge a $6,000 cancellation fee, per the document, and spoke with Vice President of External Affairs Johnathan Li, who said he was not aware of a cancellation fee and would urge Ayra to reconsider. Shortly thereafter, on March 8, Cortez-Hernandez filed his case with the judicial council.
In the document, Cortez-Hernandez writes, “Their experience, privilege, and position of power gives their opinion on R’Gear a lot of weight and would have been heard during the presentation during the Senate meeting.” The document continues, “Their decision to remain silent for 1 week creates not just internal suspicions on their politics, but it now puts our very organization at financial and legal risk.” He also wrote that this undermines the integrity of ASUCR saying, “what we cannot accept nor tolerate is a vote carried out in secrecy that violates all standards of transparency and honesty to the student body.”
Vice President of Internal Affairs Semi Cole, a vocal proponent for R’Gear, expressed his dismay at the veto during the meeting, echoing some of the concerns Cortez-Hernandez outlined above, chiefly those regarding the length of time Ayra and other ECAB members could have raised their concerns and a lack of consultation on the veto.
However, Cole did mention that he was “not sold either way” and believes that there is fiscal room for both R’Gear and other projects to happen, even though he said that R’Gear was a “divisive issue.” His disappointment was primarily with the secrecy of the veto, calling it a disrespect of ASUCR’s democracy and that it was “problematic” that they could not gather to discuss the issue “as adults.” Cole later told the senate, “look at the way things are being done, look at the way people are operating, we could have discussed this and had a democratic conversation about this … it’s sad that it has to come to this.”
In an interview with The Highlander, Ayra expressed his disappointment with the opposition from the senate when he presented the veto. “I was frustrated that the Senators would rather support a failed initiative that has cost students over $100,000 of their funds over the last few years, instead of allocating the funds towards initiatives that address food insecurity, homework costs or other critical portions of campus life,” wrote Ayra in an email.
He explained that he, along with Moore and Li, vetoed the legislation because there are “better ways to spend $35,000 of student funds.” He called the initiative “failed” and said that continuing this program is an “insult to the students that voted for ASUCR members who would represent their interests.”
Regarding the legitimacy of his veto, Ayra said that his action is based in the ASUCR constitution. He also pointed out that the senators did not have adequate student input when voting on the expense, stating, “If anything was undemocratic, it was the fact that only 9 Senators (out of 16) decided to allocate $35,000 with very little student input.” Ayra maintained that this veto was an essential step in an “extreme situation.”
Executive Vice President Carisha Moore expressed her rationale in an interview. “R’Gear is not the best use of student funds so I decided to stand with Aram and J Li (Johnathan Li) because we’ve been here the longest and seen that there are better uses for $35,000,” stated Moore, “I know there are more pressing issues on campus and I would love to see our senators put more effort towards those issues.”
In regard to the democratic legitimacy of the veto, Moore thinks the veto was completely valid. “I can understand how it may seem shady … but considering that it may not have been a piece of legislation and a finance allocation instead, honestly I have no right to define what the constitution means, so I’m waiting for what judicial has to say,” said Moore, continuing, “I find it to be democratic because we did have three-fifths of ECAB agree to stop R’Gear.”
One senator that has been a vocal critic of R’Gear, CHASS Senator Roy Tongilava, said he did not expect the allocation to be vetoed and was just as surprised as his colleagues in the senate. Tongilava wrote in an email that “Despite contrary belief, this veto is supported by our constitution. I think moving forward, it’s important that ASUCR members are now cognizant of the president’s power to veto and moreso the power of threatening to veto.”
He also expressed his support for the challenging of the veto saying that, “I think it’s great that my counterparts are choosing to challenge the veto through judicial, and I am hoping that everyone can receive answers soon.”
A central point of the meeting was the question of overdrawn reserves, posed by Ayra, because of past allocations for the R’Gear program. Early in the meeting, Ayra stated, “our reserves have been destroyed over the last few years because of exactly this initiative because we pulled so much money.” Cortez-Hernandez dispelled this assertion in the document described above, giving detailed copies and descriptions of ASUCR’s budgets, some of which are not available to the public. On the fourth page, it provides a breakdown of the contingency budget allocations and states that there is between a $800,000 and $1,000,000 estimated balance in the contingency reserves. “But our reserves as of right now are at the minimum of $800,000,” said Cortez-Hernandez in an interview. “I wanted to highlight that because a lot of students were very concerned that this is such a huge amount,” he said speaking of the $35,000 allocation.
“The contingency reserve, that balance is just if anything were to happen, like if ASUCR stopped getting funding, but us having that ridiculous amount in our reserves, and continuing to add onto it, does nothing for the students,” said Cortez-Hernandez.
A mystery Twitter account
The controversy surrounding R’Gear was furthered by the emergence of a Twitter account on Thursday, March 7 that has since gone private. Operating under the handle @fPFE6yY9QFX0nVS, the anonymous user posted image macros shaming the ECAB members that vetoed the allocation with the earliest post shared around 4 a.m. Thursday morning. One tweet, referencing Ayra, Moore and Li’s support of R’Gear last year said, “The 3 ECAB members who (unconstitutionally) tried to SECRETLY violate senates authority to allocate $ for RGear were the ACTUALLY the leading supporters of RGear about a year ago,” the tweet reads, “& ALL 3 voted to spend $50,000 on Rgear about a year ago, but now says $35k is too much?!?”
Another tweet also shames Ayra, stating “Prez Ayra asks for $40 polos per person & spends $10 per person on Food for ONE meeting but can’t spare $7 for students now?!?”
Ayra responded by stating that the account can shame “us all they want” but that it would not change the job they, those that vetoed the measure, were elected to do. He also stated that R’Gear is a “remnant of (a) time when student government leaders didn’t hold each other accountable” and that ASUCR needs to pursue a different, correct direction. He concluded by stating he hoped that “our colleagues will take those steps with us.”
Moore thinks that the account is “extremely petty and ridiculous.” She stated that as she “grows as a student leader,” her opinions have changed for the better over the past three years. “What separates me and some of the other elected officials in ASUCR is that I have listened to the students and I’ve learned from what the students have to say,” said Moore. “I can agree that I was wrong my freshman and sophomore year in ASUCR that I thought R’Gear was cool but I got into an ECAB position and realized that R’Gear is not helping us, it’s diminishing us.”
In regards to who she thinks the user behind the account was, Moore thinks there is only one person possible, but did not reveal their name. “I know who may have made the account because the financial documents presented were only available to one student that I know of and that person works in finance,” said Moore.
Cortez-Hernandez denied knowledge of the account, expressing surprise when he was informed of the account during the interview. “I had no idea of that Twitter account,” said Cortez-Hernandez, expressing his concern that some of the documents shown on the account are not accessible to the public. In a follow-up interview, Cortez-Hernandez did admit to having taken at least one of the pictures posted on the Twitter account. Though, he claimed that the image, which showed a $60 lunch reimbursement request from Ayra, was only shared with members of his finance committee and must have been leaked by someone else. He also admitted to having prior knowledge of the existence of memes related to these images before being asked by The Highlander, seemingly a contradiction of his previous expression of shock when initially asked about the Twitter account.
The Highlander is still awaiting confirmation of these claims.
This was the last ASUCR meeting of the quarter and the senate will resume meeting week one of spring quarter on Wednesday, April 4 in the senate chambers (HUB 221).
Correction 3/13/18: As of June 30, 2017, ASUCR’s reserves are actually $668,886.35.
This article has also been updated to show President Aram Ayra’s interview with The Highlander.