Ambiguous constitution divides Student Senate
By Ellen Rossow
Constitutional inconsistencies have caused a Student Senate member to resign.
Jamaal Abegaz posted a public resignation letter on Facebook Jan. 20, removing himself from his position as Chair of Academic Affairs.
Abegaz’s decision came following a number of issues he had with Student Body President Sean Duckworth and the Executive Board’s leadership. The most recent is what he called the “unconstitutional” removal of former Legislative and Internal Affairs Committee Chair Kelsey Slattery.
The discussion to remove Slattery began last semester, based, Abegaz said, on the fact she wasn’t “doing a whole lot.”
Though Duckworth claims to have “explicitly told” Slattery what jobs she was to accomplish, she doesn’t feel this was the case.
“This year’s Student Senate was operating under what I felt was a ‘work as you go’ system,” she said. “We had no team goals, deadlines or a long-term agenda.”
Slattery said she was unaware she was falling behind.
“I was completely unaware of my declining work performance, until I was finally included in the conversations … about the issue right before finals began,” she said.
After hearing of people’s complaints, Slattery said she did her best to do her fair share in Senate.
“I decided to attempt to drive during a travel warning and in a blizzard to make our first meeting of the semester,” she said. “I ended up not making it to that meeting after I almost slid off the freeway and decided it was not worth the risk.”
The next Monday morning, Slattery received an email saying, after a discussion with the executive board, her services were no longer needed.
“No explanation,” Slattery said.
Duckworth said an explanation wasn’t necessary, since the discussion had been happening since November.
“This was not her first issue,” he said. “I had had a conversation with Kelsey about this last semester. I talked about it with the Executive Board and, before we got too far into the semester, we wanted to make some changes. It wasn’t like we jumped on it and acted on it. I had people asking me to deal with this earlier than when the Executive Board and I actually sat down and discussed this.”
Slattery said she was “relieved” to be removed from Senate because she disagreed with Duckworth’s leadership approach.
“I knew this was another exercise of ‘executive privilege,’ or, in other words, an abuse of power and a huge violation in procedure,” she said. “I was relieved I was no longer working for one person and I could volunteer my time to other areas, where the true focus is on student affairs, without feeling like I was abandoning my commitment to being a senator.”
Regardless of why, when a senator is to be removed, it is put up to a vote. Abegaz believes this should have been the case for Slattery. Duckworth believes her removal is within his rights as President, because Slattery held a committee chair position and wasn’t a senator. Duckworth blamed constitutional ambiguity for the conflict.
“The constitution is very clear about how to remove a senator and how to remove the officers, but it doesn’t really touch on the cabinet or committee chairs, which is one of the problems,” Duckworth said.
Because it isn’t clear, Duckworth has to rely on what he can infer from the constitution.
“The Executive Board, which is the president, vice president and treasurer, has the ability to appoint and oversee the committee chairs,” he said.
Duckworth’s interpretation of the word “oversee” is different from Abegaz’s.
“My interpretation of the constitution … is that if the Executive Board appoints and oversees the committee chairs, overseeing also means they can remove,” Duckworth said, “especially if we are considering them to be similar to the secretary, which is an at-will position.”
Abegaz, on the other hand, thinks committee chairs should be considered senators, based on their being able to cast votes like senators.
The ambiguities led to treatment of committee chairs changing from year to year, so it is unclear which side is “right.”
“The problem is that the constitution doesn’t necessarily support one side more than the other,” Duckworth said. “I think that’s really the true issue. Jamaal pointed to the section of the constitution about removal of senators, but I think it’s pretty clear about who is considered an actual senator.”
Often, people refer to all Senate members as senators, but that is not the case.
“Because of this ambiguity in the constitution, each president, each Senate, has treated the (committee chairs) differently,” he said. “Last year, my predecessor had each committee chair voted on and appointed by the Senate, treating them like a full senator. The year before that, the stipulation was that you had to already be a senator to be a committee chair. It was an additional job on top of being a senator.”
Past Senates haven’t had to deal with this situation, so it is difficult to draw on the past for guidance.
“Each president has kind of had the ability to do what they want with this, because the constitution doesn’t say,” Duckworth said. “In the past, if there were problems with the committee chairs, it usually waits until the end of the semester. If they had an issue, they usually resign or didn’t run again.”
Apparently, Student Senate has been aware of the constitutional issues and is trying to fix them.
“One of the things we are doing this year is revising our bylaws and amending our constitution,” Duckworth said.
The Senate meeting following Abegaz’s resignation took proposal submissions to address the constitutional issues Abegaz brought up.
“The frustrating thing is that we didn’t have the chance to really discuss it,” Duckworth said. “He wasn’t able to be a part of the Senate conversation of fixing these issues.”
If all goes according to plan, constitutional revisions should be in effect come next fall semester.
“I think that this needs to be resolved,” Duckworth said. “That’s what we are trying to do. We want to resolve this so these issues don’t come up again.”