California community college student governments must comply with state open meeting laws. And parts of those laws apply to California State University student governments.
But by an oversight of government code in California, student governments on University of California campuses are not bound to any public meeting statutes despite taking in millions of dollars in mandatory student fees each year.
The pitfalls of this legal gray area became apparent last week at an Undergraduate Students Association Council meeting that lasted almost 12 hours and drew attention from major news outlets. During a controversial vote on a resolution to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, the council opted to vote by secret ballot even after two straw polls clearly revealed the councilmembers’ leanings.
Patty Zimmerman, student government services manager, pointed to “Robert’s Rules of Order” as a justification for the secret ballots. However, these same parliamentary procedures do not ordinarily allow straw polls.
Councilmembers should have voted to move the meeting into what “Robert’s Rules of Order” term a “quasi-committee of the whole,” allowing the council to conduct the straw vote privately in committee. Otherwise, the council could vote by two-thirds majority to suspend “Robert’s Rules of Order” in order to conduct a public straw poll, according to Ronald Arruejo, a UCLA alumnus and former USAC Finance Committee chair who is a member of the National Association of Parliamentarians.
This contradiction illustrates a need for a consistent policy for USAC – and other UC student governments – to follow.
USAC councilmembers are not alone in making the choice to conceal their votes from public scrutiny. UC Riverside’s undergraduate student government rejected a similar divestment resolution by secret ballot in February. Likewise, UC San Diego voted on a divestment resolution in March of last year by secret ballot.
While most UC student governments currently list their meetings as public and delineate conditions when closed sessions are permitted, the stipulations for what constitutes a true “public meeting” are at times sparse and vague. Given that USAC is one of those bodies that lists its meetings as public, this lack of clarity merits attention from California legislators, who should ultimately decide on when these provisions do and don’t apply.
Under the Brown Act, which binds California community colleges, secret ballots are prohibited in all cases. Likewise, the Gloria Romero Open Meetings Act, which Cal State student governments must comply with, does not allow secret voting, among other measures.
The fact that no such code binds UC student governments is a discrepancy in state law that merits correction. Though legislative power over UC schools is mediated by the UC Board of Regents, UC schools are no less an extension of the state than CSU or community college campuses.
Besides, these open meeting laws provide the public – and the media – a way to ensure public officials are acting out their roles in full view of the constituencies they serve. They mandate certain accountability measures – for example, allowing recording and broadcasting of meetings, limiting when bodies can enter closed session and requiring a public comment section.
As the representatives of student populations and their specific interests, with control over great pools of student fees, UC student governments should be held to the same ethical standards as local and state bodies.
If councilmembers aim to live up to the standard of accountability to which they pay lip service, they should be as equally enthused as this editorial board in seeking clarification from the legislature on just how “public” their public meetings are.