On Tuesday, Nov. 10, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Undergraduate House of Representatives escorted me out of the room. He did so because I refused to leave as UHR went into an executive session excluding all non-members. I did not leave because it is my firm belief as a student-journalist that all business of UHR ought to be public and open to the scrutiny of the student body.
This year, UHR has entered executive session several times to discuss the selection of certain officers including the three Members-at-Large, who are supposed to represent the entirety of the student body; the Secretary of the House, tasked with keeping a record of meetings; and the Treasurer, who keeps track of the finances of UHR. Each time, all non-members were asked to leave and wait until discussion and voting on the matter in question was completed. Tuesday night, the House entered executive session to discuss the impeachment of a senior AE Representative, and stayed in the session for the discussion on the articles of impeachment, the hearing and the discussion on expelling him.
Neither the undergraduate SGA Constitution nor the undergraduate SGA bylaws contain any justification for entering executive session for any reason, and, in fact, the only mention of executive session prohibits its use when in an “issue meeting.” Each time the House expels non-members from the room, that decision is entirely up to the body and made without any legal compulsion. This practice must stop immediately.
The first reason is that closing such meetings may very well be illegal. According to the Georgia Open Meetings Act, all meetings of a government agency, save for very specific circumstances, must be open. Although UHR on its face may not seem to be a government agency, the fact that it executes a duty that normally would be carried out by the Institute (i.e. distributing the student activity fee), means that it most likely falls under the law.
I do agree that meetings involving the discussion of the dismissal of a public officer do not fall under the law. However, the debate on whether to discuss the disciplinary action, the hearing involved and the final vote on whether to expel the officer all must be open according to the law. Also, the law does not prescribe that any meetings must be closed, only that the body has the option of closing meetings that fit the very specific circumstances outlined.
Second, even if the Act does not apply to UHR, the body should not close any of its meetings. There is no compelling reason for UHR to hide its activities from the student body that elected it. UHR is in the business of representing the student body, and anything worthy of being discussed by its forty-five members is worthy of being known to its 14,000 constituents. Any secret discussion only weakens the trust the student body has in its duly-elected representatives.
SGA has a lot of power on campus, more power than nearly any other campus organization. By its decisions, organizations are funded or not. They allocate $4.5 million each year to the CRC, the Student Center and most student organizations on campus. Just this week they decided against spending $17,500 on LeaderShape and to spend $12,500 on Campus Movie Fest. These are huge decisions by the representatives that have very real consequences. How those representatives who make these decisions are selected, disciplined and possibly expelled is knowledge students must have.
UHR should immediately amend its bylaws with language mirroring the Open Meetings Act. They should decide, by majority vote, to enter a closed session only in the most sensitive of issues. They should do all of this because they are both an agency of the state government, beholden to its laws, and representatives of the student body with a duty to its constituents to carry out its business in public.
Though the items discussed in executive session thus far seem inconsequential, the precedent established by such cavalier usage of closed meetings is dangerous. When it truly matters, in the possible case that a President or other high officer of undergraduate SGA is impeached, then we must hope that UHR has the convictions to conduct its grave business in full sunlight.