Editorial: Behind the veil of ASUCR

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Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER

This week students get to have their say over who represents them on the ASUCR Senate. The decisions we make can have huge implications over the way our student fees are allocated, how we’re reflected as a student body on and off campus, and what changes are made to general student life. For these reasons, the decision of who to elect to the senate cannot be made lightly. In customary newspaper fashion, the Highlander dedicates this week’s editorial to the subject of ASUCR with the goal of best educating voters.

For the past year the Highlander has followed ASUCR closely, reporting on its meetings, often in painstaking detail. Along the way we have made note of many grave concerns in regards to several facets of the student government. In recent months, issues that were of minor preoccupation grew to major institutional problems that have threatened its integrity. Things have gotten so bad that the Highlander has lost its confidence in the efficacy of ASUCR.

As further explained below, the Highlander is unable to endorse any candidate for ASUCR senate, but particularly does not support the reelection of any incumbent. In order for the senate to recover, it needs an entirely new membership which will take the following problems to heart and commit to fixing them.

To be clear, the Highlander wishes the absolute best for UCR’s student government. This editorial is constructive criticism derived entirely from our objective reporting and observations. After all, the Editorial Board is made up of students, and when ASUCR succeeds, we all succeed. With that said, it has become painfully evident that changes need to be made if ASUCR is to reemerge as a positive force on campus, and those changes are outlined here.

Purpose and Accomplishments

What do ASUCR senators say they’ll do during their term? They say they’ll do a lot of things when you catch one in the hall or during the “debates,” but never anything specific. So what can ASUCR senators really do to help students?

On their website, senators say they “advocate” for students, “represent them on campus-wide issues” and “participate in current events.” That’s a little vague. ASUCR should present students with a clear list of their duties. If you were to ask a random student sitting next to you in class what he or she thinks ASUCR does, they won’t have a clue—or they’ll say, “Don’t they organize Block Party or something?”

To be fair, ASUCR has made some accomplishments. They increased the printing quota from 40 pages to 200 in the Watkins Computer Lab. However, Senator Johnny Ta’s report in fall quarter said it is a three-year project. After three years, ASUCR will look at it again and decide if it will continue receiving funds. Last year they advocated for Proposition 30, a ballot initiative by Gov. Jerry Brown to increase taxes and avoid further cuts to the UC Budget. Senators painted recycle bins as part of GCAP, experimented with convenient cubbie storage for commuters and advocated for the installation of solar panels in Lot 30.

But the keyword here is “some.” They also voted on controversial resolutions such as the “Divestment from Companies that Profit from Apartheid,” which was mired in ham-handed political debates that filled the ASUCR Senate Chambers with even more rhetoric. Did ASUCR senators announce their political views before or after they were elected? They never did.

Political Decisions

The senate’s vote on the divestment resolution and its subsequent rescission marked a significant turning point in the culture of UCR’s student government away from campus-centered problems and toward national and international issues. ASUCR should and needs to participate in wide-reaching issues important to the student body, including decisions like divestment. However, the senate’s move to divest marked a moment when UCR’s student government made a political decision––but our ASUCR senators were not voted into office with political labels, preventing the student body from voting for senators who adequately represent their beliefs.

It is important for ASUCR to vote on political matters to show UC students’ voices in a changing political world. If ASUCR continues along this route, a solution would be to state the political leanings of each candidate on the ballot during election season. Identifying labels like conservative, liberal or moderate and stances on hot-button topics would give the student body a general idea about how a senator might vote in political issues, and how that senator would represent the students of UCR.

We are not asking for ASUCR to detail the life histories of candidates, but UCR students should be informed about the political leanings of their representatives. Without adequate knowledge of the basic political backgrounds or feelings of the candidates, it is not possible for the students of UCR to make an informed decision on who they wish to represent them, especially with ASUCR beginning to make overtly political decisions.

UCR’s student body is an extremely diverse one, and we take great pride in this. Everyone deserves representation, but without knowledge of the basic political feelings of their candidates, students are truly left in the dark as to whether their concerns are being accurately represented by their senators. This can lead to not only unwanted, but inaccurate representations of the student body at UCR. Without proper representation, how can ASUCR accurately capture the voice of UCR’s students? And if it cannot accurately represent us, what is the point of electing senators in the first place?

Ethics and Transparency

Transparency is one of the defining qualities of an honest student government. After all, transparency reassures the voters that their representatives are doing their duties assiduously. For the past few weeks, however, the actions of ASUCR have been nothing but covert. Never in recent memory has the lack of transparency from the student government been as evident as it has been in the last month.

During a senate meeting on March 6, 2013, senators decided to vote on five pieces of legislation, including the controversial divestment resolution and an ASUCR stipend increase, through a closed ballot. After the votes were cast, they were seen and counted solely by Executive Vice President Armando Saldana. The votes were then shredded and never revealed to the public. ASUCR’s reason behind the secrecy was to ensure the safety of the senators. According to Saldana, no senators have received threats to their personal safety since.

Similar actions were taken during another senate meeting on April 2, 2013. This time, the senate voted to rescind the same controversial resolution they had passed a month earlier. Just like in the previous meeting, the votes were cast secretly. This time around, however, Saldana and two other members of ASUCR were present to count the votes in another room. Admittedly, having more members counting the ballots is a bit more reassuring than having only one person counting them.

But that’s not enough. ASUCR is a public body that represents students, and all votes should be released to the public. Failure to do so is not only troublesome for students, but a violation of ASUCR’s transparency act, which requires secret ballot votes be made public within 48 hours of being cast. For the students of UCR to truly trust their elected representatives, every vote must be made public, especially when a decision as substantial as this one is made. It is the students’ right to know whom they voted for and what their actions are. It’s simple ethics.

The ASUCR Constitution is clearly a work in progress. As a new crop of senators take their seats, the Highlander recommends that changes are made to the Constitution that voluntarily abide by California’s cornerstone law on government transparency, the Brown Act. Local governments, homeowners’ associations and even CCC and CSU student governments fall under the jurisdiction of the law—all except ASUCs. Incorporating the guidelines and best practices outlined by the Brown Act would not only open up ASUCR to the public, but also position it as a leader in the UC system on issues of transparency and accountability.

ASUCR is supposed to be a representative body of elected officials, who represent the interests of the student body. Student fees have been funneled into ASUCR but have resulted in only minimal improvements to campus life and climate, leaving the government as opaque as ever.

The Judicial Branch

During the 2012-2013 elections, the undergraduate student body approved the passage of a constitutional amendment that changed the ASUCR senate from a parliamentary system to a three-branch government, with judicial, executive and legislative branches.

The separation of powers among the three branches was meant to create a system of checks and balances within the student government, especially after a crossfire of controversy near the end of last year proved a lack of accountability and integrity. Yet the senate continues to operate with little to no internal accountability over their legislative processes.

The judicial branch consists of six members, appointed by the executive branch and confirmed by the senate. During fall 2012, a justice often attended all senate meetings. Due to fears of undue influence on an impartial judiciary, the judicial branch determined that their presence was no longer needed during the senate meeting.

ASUCR Vice Chief Justice Mark Orland argues that the branches have limited interaction when discussing legislative matters and there is a level of confidentiality that is balanced within the student government. Arguably, the separation of powers is limited by the fact that all branches are located in the same office, increasing the chance for one branch to influence another.

The judicial branch’s lack of transparency became most apparent during the March 6 meeting, where ASUCR conducted five closed ballot votes because of one controversial resolution. The Highlander attempted to contact the judicial branch in regards to the vote, yet no contact information was available at the time. ASUCR Parliamentarian Chris Sanchez, who serves as an oversight for legal proceedings, and who we contacted for comment, could not reach any of the justices either. A recently-updated webpage for the judicial branch has been posted with the main contact information.

Orland explained that the branch has attempted to become an “established” institution over the current academic year, due to the recent changes to the ASUCR Constitution. He stated that investigative cases are often filed by both senators and members of the audience on pieces of legislation or even legal proceedings that do not abide by the Constitution. With such a strong reliance on the Constitution, we are left to wonder whether the justices should take a more proactive approach in their responsibilities. At the same time, the absence of the judicial branch during senate meetings leaves students with a limited understanding of each branch’s role and overall effectiveness within government.

Elections and Campaigning

ASUCR needs to be competent in one of the few areas it has near-complete control over: elections to its own body. But this is far from true. Let’s face it: ASUCR elections are a farce.

It is true that coordinating an election for a student body of over 10,000 is difficult. But that is not an excuse for problems that have appeared with alarming regularity. Elections last year were mired in controversy after candidates exploited a loophole in the elections bylaws, allowing them to campaign with laptops at University Village. Despite the uproar, the elections results were allowed to stand.

ASUCR managed to botch this year’s elections before they even started. Four candidates were initially disqualified from running for office because they failed to turn in a list of 50 student identification numbers (SIDs), alongside students’ names and signatures. However, neither the petition on which the candidate was supposed to collect the SIDs, nor the ASUCR elections bylaws, make mention of an SID requirement. ASUCR later voted to allow the candidates to participate in the election. But there’s something disconcerting about an elected body of representatives selecting the candidates to next serve as student body representatives.

There is an inherent conflict of interest at play in ASUCR’s decision to allow the candidates to run. All of the candidates were to be members of the YOU[CR] party, the same party the senatorial incumbents are members of. One of those candidates initially disqualified is current ASUCR Senator Niela Darmani, who essentially voted to include herself on the ballot.

In light of the senate’s decision to allow the YOU[CR] candidates to run, a candidate in the rival R’Voice party was disqualified for having not fulfilled an election requirement. His disqualification also resulted in the disbandment of the party because it no longer met the member quota enforced by the elections. This time, the candidate was not allowed to rectify the situation and run.

Given the incompetence with which elections are managed, it is no wonder that students are reluctant to vote and ASUCR is essentially forced to incentivize students into voting with free giveaways at the voting booth.

UCR students can’t even make informed voting decisions because ASUCR does not provide sufficient information to students. Brief biographies are required of all candidates, but they leave hardly enough room for students to learn anything significant about the candidates’ goals, plans, backgrounds and experience. ASUCR should require lengthier statements so candidates would have to prove they bring solutions to the table.

Candidate debates produce only more vague assurances of maintaining autonomy from the UCR administration, a product of time constraints. The solution is to hold more debates so that students are able to make informed decisions at the polling place.

Endorsements

KUCR Referendum

The KUCR radio station has been an integral part of the campus community for nearly a half century, providing news and entertainment to students and the larger Riverside area. Implementing a student fee would enable KUCR to repair and replace aging infrastructure and provide contribute “to a building fund which would at some point relocate the station to a modern facility,” according to the referendum. In so doing, it would improve the quality of broadcasts and further encourage student participation in radio and student media. For these reasons, the Highlander endorses the KUCR referendum.

Constitutional Amendment 1

The ASUCR senate’s current composition of 16 senators is not able to accurately reflect the diversity of an expanding UCR campus. As UCR grows, it is vital that its students have a representative body able to respond to its needs and desires. By expanding the number of senators from 16 to 20, ASUCR would better mirror the campus as a whole, giving students accurate representation and enabling our elected representatives to live up to the true meaning of representation. Therefore, the Highlander supports increasing the number of Senators from 16 to 20.

Constitutional Amendment 2

The second constitutional amendment imposes a number of changes, including giving the president the authority to select the controller (who will be renamed the vice president of finance) and limiting the use of executive vetoes, among other alterations. Although some of these changes are made with good intentions in mind, they do not significantly address the problems of transparency and accountability that have hobbled ASUCR throughout the year. This constitutional amendment is little more than a band-aid on top of a larger festering problem. Until ASUCR has shown a willingness to fix its most pressing issues, the Highlander cannot endorse these changes to the Constitution.

Candidate Endorsements

The Highlander would like to provide endorsements for candidates, but we are unable to do so because of the lack of information provided by ASUCR and the candidates themselves. Without adequate information, the Highlander cannot make any evaluation as to the competency of any candidate. Therefore, the Highlander refrains from making any endorsements of candidates or of parties.

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