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Student Activity Fee Now By Popular Vote

By Jeff Licitra


            A sweeping amendment to the Constitution of the Undergraduate Student Government that changes how the amount of the Student Activity Fee is determined was passed in a special referendum that occurred from November 13 through November 17 where only 1.2% of fee-paying undergraduate students voted.


            The change allows for a binding up or down vote by the undergraduate student body on the amount of the Student Activity Fee.  Students voted for this change as “Amendment I” on the SOLAR System.


            Copies of the approved amendment as it appeared on the SOLAR ballot here.


            In doing so, the amended Article XI 1.A of the USG Constitution expands the type of referenda that the USG may conduct from two to four.  Under the previous definition, the USG was allowed to have only advisory referenda on the amount of the Student Activity Fee.  The only binding vote was the every other year referendum on whether a mandatory Fee should be added to the undergraduate’s tuition bill.


            The language of the amendments does not account for a scenario where a binding Mandatory Fee is approved, but the amount of the Fee is voted down there after.  In this event, the USG would have full discretion to set the amount of the fee to any other amount they choose.


            Robert Romano, the USG Senator who authored the amendments, responded to the above scenario saying “generally speaking, that’s not the type of referenda we could hold.”  He continued “those types of referenda aren’t anticipated” and that “it would be highly irresponsible to put those types of referenda on the ballot.”


            This amendment was unanimously approved by the USG Executive Council on October 12 so that the referendum on their adoption would appear on the October general election ballot.


            However, the referenda on the amendments never took place on the October 23 through 27 ballot, where 739 students voted, four times the amount of the November 13 ballot.


            The turnout for the spring 2006 general election was 2,966 students, nearly eighteen times that of the November 13 ballot.


            The postponement of the referenda to the special November 13 ballot occurred in the October 17 USG Senate meeting, where Romano introduced and the Senate approved a resolution creating the November 13 ballot.


            This following the intervention of Vice-President of Student Affairs Peter Baigent and Associate Vice-President of Student Affairs / Dean of Students Jerry Stein, both of whom requested Romano postpone the referenda out of concern that the move to a binding referendum on the amount of the Student Activity Fee could violate New York State Law.


            Said Stein, “We wanted to make sure with University Counsel that these proposed changes were in line with state guidelines.  We don’t really want to interfere with student government.”  He continued further, “We were pressed for time.  Dr. Baigent and I really didn’t want to get involved in the business of student government.  We needed a little bit of time for us to review there weren’t any violations to 302.14.”


            By 302.14, Stein is referring to Section 8 of the New York Codes, Rules, and Regulations.  Section 8 is for the Education Department.  302.14 is the regulatory law governing student activity fees within the SUNY system.  This section of law is determined by the SUNY Board of Trustees, in accordance with education law passed by the State Legislature.  This section was modified by the SUNY Trustees as recently as September 14, 2004.


            A “memorandum of understanding” exists between the Office of Student Affairs, the Elections Board of the USG, and the Department of Information Technology (DoIT) that effectively gives Student Affairs veto power over the ballot.  This veto power exists as a mandatory certification of the ballot before DoIT posts it on the SOLAR system.  The memorandum specifically outlines the need for Student Affairs to ensure that any referenda on the ballot comply with New York State Law.


            The full text of the memorandum can be found here.


            In order to address their concerns about the legality of a binding referendum on the amount of the Student Activity Fee, Stein and Baigent invited the following USG officers to a meeting with University Legal Counsel: Amy Wisnoski, the Executive Vice-President who chairs the USG Senate; Robert Romano, who in addition to authoring the amendments, also serves as the President Pro-Tempore of the USG Senate; and Romual Jean-Baptiste, who as President of the USG holds veto power over all USG Senate bills.


            Only Romano attended the meeting saying, “I specifically recommended to Baigent not to postpone [the referenda].”  While no veto over the ballot was exercised, Romano said he made the decision to postpone the referenda “under duress.”


            When told of Romano’s comment Stein replied, “I thought it was a very casual conversation but it was a meeting and did have many attorneys there.”


            Stein said that the intention of the meeting was two fold: “One, to make sure we’re in sync with state regulations, and two, to make suggestions.”  He explained, “suggestions that there be an open dialogue, discussion – that there be some town meetings – to go to other student groups.”  To that end, Stein said his message to Romano was: “If you want, we can do a special election.”


            Romano then proceeded to organize the November 7 USG Senate meeting as a public forum on the amendments.  Dr. Norm Goodman, professor of sociology and active member and former President of the University’s Faculty Senate, was invited as a guest speaker.


            No efforts were made to reach out to student clubs or to publicize the event to the undergraduate student body.


            When asked why he did not do more outreach to student clubs, such as sending an email about the general club list serve, Romano said, “It wasn’t my number one priority, my number one priority was to make sure the amendments were in legal compliance with state law.”


            Dr. Goodman cancelled, and the Senate meeting proceeded as any other Senate meeting with discussion centered this time on modifications made to the Amendments.


            The modifications to the amendment concerning the binding referendum on the Student Activity Fee did not materially or substantially change the meaning of the bill.


            The phrase, “in accordance with the SUNY Chancellor’s Guidelines” was replaced with the phrase “in accordance with NYCRR 302.14” or, in the case of the opening line, “in accordance with NYCRR 302.14 and federal jurisprudence.”


            These modified amendments never made it to the November 13 ballot because they were never approved by a two-thirds vote of the Executive Council.  They were never approved because the Executive Council never voted on them.  At the November 8 meeting, the Council did not have enough members present to vote.

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