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ASSU Senate struggles for relevancy, lasting effect

Despite having passed over 40 pieces of legislation during its term thus far, the 13th ASSU Undergraduate Senate has struggled to make an impact this year due to bureaucratic gridlock, opposition from University officials and inconsistency in following its own legislation. The Senate’s actions have proven largely internal or ineffectual – a far cry from the representatives’ platforms touting transparency, accountability and student life issues.

Transparency

On May 31, near the start of its term, the Senate unanimously passed UGS-S2011-20, a bill “to improve accountability of the Undergraduate Senate.” The bill sought to improve transparency of Senate action by requiring senators to put any individual and committee projects, accompanied by timelines, on the Senate website for all students to see. The then-fresh senators recognized student body sentiment of confusion and disconnect regarding the Senate and sought to change this pattern.

Senators have not referred to the bill in their weekly meetings since it was passed last May. No database of senator projects exists and bills passed by the Senate have no central location, but are scattered in the minutes of Senate meetings posted on the body’s website, which didn’t exist until more than halfway through the year.

In January, the Senate further limited its transparency by beginning to hold 15- to 20-minute “informal” meetings excluding reporters before each of its constitutionally mandated open meetings each week. The informal meetings began at the third meeting after a Daily article (“Senate bill fails: 5 in favor, 4 opposed,” Nov. 30) reported on a contentious moment between Senate Deputy Chair Dan Ashton ’14 and Senator Janani Ramachandran ’14. According to Senate Chair Rafael Vazquez ’12, the informal meetings are intended to allow “personal issues” to be aired outside of the public’s view; however, the meetings serve other purposes, as well.

“Not all senators have time to be up-to-date to what’s on the agenda,” Ashton said as part of an explanation for the pre-meetings, though he directed questions about the meetings to Vazquez. While senators have maintained that they do not directly discuss bills at the meeting, they do acknowledge using the time to review agenda items.

“Disintegrating initiatives”

Of the 40 bills passed thus far, six made internal ASSU appointments, four created internal divisions within the ASSU and three were “resolutions” on behalf of the student body, each of which ultimately failed to garner response or action from the University.

The Senate launched three initiatives this year that sought to affect student life but failed to gain traction.

After several weeks of debate in October, the Senate passed two bills creating the Division of Internal Review (DIR), headed by Andrew Aguilar ’14. The DIR, strongly supported by ASSU Executive Michael Cruz ’12, was intended to promote efficiency and reform within the ASSU. Instead, it suffered months of delay due to difficulty accessing the necessary documentation for review from SSE.

The DIR did not receive Senate renewal in January following complaints that Aguilar hadn’t been communicating with the Senate properly, and the group failed to produce any reports. A form of the group now exists under a different name in the ASSU Executive branch, but has not produced any public documents.

A second initiative sought to support the Stanford football team. Senators Ben Laufer ’12 and Nate Garcia ’14 aimed to offer students a package deal to make the USC football game in Los Angeles affordable. Laufer and Garcia said after they secured funding sources, Nanci Howe, director of Student Activities and Leadership (SAL), halted their project. Howe told The Daily that the trip didn’t meet requirements from the Office of Risk Management, which recommended that the ASSU not promote the event in the University’s name. Howe said the Senate was aware that this was a recommendation; however, senators repeatedly referred to it as a prohibition.

“What that made it difficult to do was market effectively,” Garcia said. “Technically, we weren’t allowed to market it as an ASSU initiative.”

The senators then transitioned to a rebate program, hoping to subsidize ticket costs. The program received hundreds of submissions for the rebate; however, since the Oct. 29 game, only one refund check has been processed. Garcia blamed the hold-up on Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE), the financial arm of the ASSU, but SSE CEO Neveen Mahmoud ’11 said the Senate has only submitted three check requests so far, and only one has been picked up.

In October, the Senate set up a Vaden Advisory Board to establish a “well-informed link between Vaden Health Center and the student body.” The Senate appointed three members – two of them senators – to the advisory committee in January. When asked this week, Senator Tara Trujillo ’14 initially said the committee hadn’t held any meetings or taken any action, but Senator Lily Fu ’14 clarified that the board met with Vaden officials in February to discuss increasing student access to off-campus medical options.

“We advise and keep open lines of communication with Vaden, but do not necessarily program nor legislate on Vaden’s activities,” Fu said in an email to The Daily.

University opposition

One attempt by the Senate to address student need resulted in an empty call for action by University officials who then objected to the legislation.

The CARDINAL Act, a resolution passed in February and co-authored by five senators – including Brianna Pang ’13 and Dan DeLong ’13, now running together for ASSU Executive, and Cruz – called upon the Language Center to modify its policy regarding attendance, arguing unfairness to disabled students.

The Senate called upon the Office of Accessible Education (OAE), the University department responsible for ensuring access for disabled students, to act on behalf of disabled students regarding the issue. OAE Director Joan Bisagno had harsh words for the bill’s authors.

“The author of that bill really misstated the issue and used our office in an inappropriate way,” Bisagno said in an interview with The Daily. “To use disability as the reason to push this law through is absolutely incorrect.”

Bisagno said the Language Center’s policy does not violate any laws and that the department has been helpful in accommodating disabled students in the past.

Buffer fund debate

Two bills and months of work went into providing funding for the Stanford Concert Network (SCN) and Blackfest concert organizers from an ASSU buffer fund. The fund, which many senators didn’t know existed before SCN organizer Stephen Trusheim ’13 requested money from it, is funded from excess special fees and intended to fund groups that don’t receive enough votes for special fees. The Senate passed bills that granted $35,000 to SCN, but loaned Blackfest $40,000, a double standard that has never been explained.

In addition to these inequity concerns, Mahmoud expressed concerns after the passage of the bill about the use of this buffer fund, saying, “I don’t believe that this should be a regular use for buffer-fund money.”

Funding and advocacy

When interviewed, no senator listed any of the above bills or initiatives as the most important action resulting from their term. Instead, senators cited effective disbursement of funds to student groups and advocacy to administrators as their top accomplishments for the year.

The funding of student groups occurs almost entirely in the appropriations committee. While senators vote on funding bills as a group, no funding bill has ever made it through the appropriations committee and then failed its vote in the 13th Senate. Funding bills are typically passed unanimously and without discussion at the start of every meeting.

While senators refer to meetings with administrators as a key part of their service to the student body, this unique aspect of the role is nearly impossible to quantify. These reported meetings occur behind closed doors, meaning the student body has no way of knowing what is said or advocated on its behalf.

There are notable exceptions to the Senate’s struggles with programs this year. A one-on-one advocacy program created by DeLong has served over 30 students, he said.

Another key outcome of this year may be a new version of the ASSU governing documents, which were re-written and shortened this year, almost entirely by Cruz and Senator Alex Kindel ’14, in the hopes of simplifying internal ASSU rules and regulations. The new draft is currently in a feedback phase. Former ASSU Executives sent Cruz and the current Senate a letter advising to delay the self-imposed ratification deadline of April 14 for at least a quarter. This action would push the ratification process to the next Senate.

Prescient, if ineffective

The Senate predicted its woes and diagnosed systemic problems as far back as UGS-S2011-20 on May 31.

“Projects initiated by Senators are not always carried out within the initially determined time-frame, and sometimes disintegrate altogether,” read the legislation.

With elections for next year approaching and no current senators running for re-election to the Senate, the window for action by this year’s representatives is swiftly closing.

Contact Brendan O’Byrne at [email protected]

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