Since transferring to USF in 2012, Katharine Orr has found it increasingly difficult to remain up to date with Student Government (SG) meetings and debates.
Orr, a senior majoring in biomedical sciences and political science, said a lack of minutes and calendar updates on the SG website have kept her from voicing opinions and concerns with elected representatives.
When the issue of student fee increases made its way into the public eye, Orr saw a serious issue with the way SG communicates with students. Particularly, Orr was concerned with statements made by SG Senator Cory Ulloa and SG President Jean Cocco, who talked about a lack of student involvement in last month’s debate surrounding the Local Fee Committee.
Orr filed an official grievance with SG on Oct. 31 against the leaders of the executive, legislative and judicial branches, calling on SG as a whole to be more transparent and accountable in the way it communicates with students.
“I got really upset,” Orr said. “Don’t accuse me of apathy — don’t accuse other students of apathy — when the meeting information isn’t even available.”
For over a year now, the SG Senate has been operating in violation of Florida’s open government law and their own statutes, which require public bodies to make transcripts of meetings available to the public.
The only minutes made publicly available on SG’s website at the time of print are from Sept. 9 of this year and were approved Nov. 4.
Prior to that, SG had not publicly posted minutes since Nov. 12, 2013.
There have been seven meetings of the Activity & Service fee Recommendation Committee this semester that also have no publicly available minutes.
This committee is responsible for determining how SG spends the roughly $14 million in A&S fees each year.
The issue, according to Senate President Pro-Tempore Abdool Aziz, is that SG does not actually have minutes to post.
Aziz said when he assumed his position in May; the person who previously held his position did not inform him that the most experienced transcriber had left the university.
Aziz blamed this miscommunication for the lack of publicly available minutes. He said the process of hiring and training new transcribers for Senate and committee meetings has been ongoing since May.
Orr said she believes the lack of minutes mostly affects the commuter portion of the student population and prevents other busy students from participating in SG.
“There are a lot of students who can’t physically show up to the meetings, but it’s not their fault for being uninformed. It’s SG’s fault for not being able to do what they are required by statute to do,” Orr said.
Though Aziz said the SG Senate have posted live streams to YouTube and UStream, he admits links to the streams were not made available on SG’s website.
The videos are also not approved minutes that satisfy statutory requirements.
Generally, all SG meetings are recorded and transcribed by paid transcribers. Once the transcriptions are made and approved by Aziz, they are sent to SG senators and committee members to be approved at the next meeting.
After the minutes are approved, they are sent to IT to be uploaded to the website. That process, Aziz said, can take anywhere from 24 hours to a week, depending on how busy IT is at the time.
Though the backlog of minutes will not be complete until after the winter break, Aziz said SG has approved overtime pay for the transcribers to help them get caught up.
The missing minutes for meetings from the spring semester will likely not be made available, because Aziz said he does not have access to information of the prior senate president pro-tempore.
When asked about issues related to calendar updates, Aziz directed questions to Maggie Hall, director of communications for the SG executive branch.
Aziz referred to Hall as SG’s “designated webmaster.”
Hall, however, claimed she was never made aware by Senate leadership that updating the legislative calendar fell under her job responsibilities, but said she does take full responsibility for the lack of updates in the executive calendar.
“I know when each committee meets during the week, however they do call special committees and many other ad hoc committees and I do not get any notifications for when those meetings are being held,” Hall said.
Though Aziz claimed he did not have access to the calendar, Hall said the heads of each branch are supposed to have access to the calendar and are supposed to update their own calendars.
“Everyone kind of plays the blame game,” Hall said. “I am more than willing to (update the calendar) and I think we are setting up a meeting between our leadership and with other branches’ leadership, because other branches do it on their own.”
Currently, Chief Justice Sammy Hamed keeps the judicial calendar up to date.
“I think my department kind of gets relied on a lot because, although I’m in the executive branch, it’s still my responsibility to communicate what is going on in the legislative and judicial branch, but if they don’t provide me information or provide me any details, I can’t do that,” Hall said.
Though the uncertainty surrounding who is responsible for the online calendars has prevented SG from updating them, Hall said SG does try to put up notice on its Facebook page to inform students of weekly Senate meetings.
Both Aziz and Hall also said SG has asked Marshall Student Center operators to make the meeting times available on the screens in the building.
However, Orr said she believes putting the meeting times on the screen or on social media, rather than using the existing tools on the SG website, is insufficient for informing students.
“You’re basically asking 40,000 students to herd to like two or three monitors and wait for (SG) meetings to scroll by,” Orr said. “I have friends who commute from St. Pete to go to classes. What are they supposed to do?”
On Thursday, the Judiciary and Ethics Committee (JEC) reviewed the grievance and agreed to move forward with the investigation.
The committee will begin its investigation today.
In her official statement to the committee, Orr has asked for the employment contracts of the three branch leaders named in the grievance: Cocco, Hamed and Senate President Andy Rodriguez.
Orr said she has requested the information to see if the leaders of each branch are violating their oath of office on students’ dime.
Cocco said he was disappointed that Orr filed an official grievance rather than sit down to talk with him about the issues, but encouraged the committee to
perform a diligent investigation.
Orr’s grievance also requests three specific remedies including updating the calendars and posting minutes to keep SG in compliance with state law and SG statutes, that the JEC issue orders of non-compliance against the three branch heads, and for SG to issue a public apology via The Oracle to “remind them that they are accountable to students.”
“Nobody gets involved anymore because of things like this. Everyone thinks there’s no point because they can’t really do anything and that’s totally not the case,” Orr said. “The efficacy of government comes from its representatives and we don’t have that, which is why we are where we are right now.”