Off the ballot?
SGA election tumult drawing to a close; stuents still have say
| Marcus Clem editor in chief |
SGA’s last meeting of the semester in Russ Hall on Wednesday, April 9, was characterized by emotion, animosity and perhaps even forgiveness.
There was still plenty of anger to go around, as three members – Joshua Packard, Sen. Mike Berry and Rodney Kimlin – resigned in protest.
Alyssa Marsh, Sen. Lindsay Ong and Sen. Bryce Schuetz talked at length about the culture of personal attacks and animosity that has plagued the assembly in internal discussions on social media in the last week.
Each speech won applause from most of the people in the room, though, as they concluded on a positive note.
A climactic moment came from Schuetz when he turned to David Adams and Steve Erwin, the university’s advisers to the assembly. Two days before, Erwin had made the decision to intervene in the campaign for the SGA 2014-2015 election.
“I’ve lost all respect for you,” Schuetz said. “If there was a problem, we should have been allowed to fix it.”
That argument represents one of the central points of debate in one of the roughest SGA election seasons ever. That debate is not yet resolved; polls remain open on GUS until 5 p.m. today.
How did student government get here?
SAAC starting point
On Monday, March 31, Jake Letner, the Letner/Hebrlee party’s candidate for Student Government Association president, gave a presentation on athletic student fees and the effect they have on Pittsburg State’s student-athlete scholarships.
With that, he sparked a week of heated debate between supporters of Letner/Hebrlee and opposition Gorilla Alliance, in concert with a slew of decisions and reversals, and the worst Pittsburg State SGA infighting in memory.
“I’m just tired of it all,” said Sen. Jordan Simoncic, who has not backed either of the contending parties. “When the violations were turned in, it seemed over. Done with. Since then, it’s just exploded.”
Jeremy Johnson, who served as SGA president in 2007-2008, agrees that it’s been a rough campaign.
“It seems to me that things are more aggressive,” he said. “During my election, I think both sides put a ton of energy into the campaign, but it seems like the accusations of bias and attacks of a personal nature weren’t there.
“The character of this election does strike me as a little foreign, and different.”
Week of trouble
Letner’s pitch to the Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC), a group of officials and student-athletes that assists the Athletics Department, was judged foul according to SGA’s prohibition on personal attacks.
The campaign moderators, the SGA election board, stepped in.
Other violations were alleged: Letner’s running mate, Jaecy Hebrlee, was accused of negative campaigning when she visited the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house on Friday, April 4; Letner/Hebrlee supporters were accused several times of using SGA office resources for campaigning; and Letner/Hebrlee did not submit a report detailing its campaign expenses to the election board by the Saturday, April 5, deadline.
The election board initially voted to disqualify Letner and Hebrlee from the race on Thursday, April 3, for the SAAC charge.
Letner appealed to SGA leadership, saying that the board was biased against his candidacy. Taylor Gravett, SGA president, responded by firing four election-board members who he said had “crossed a line.” Gravett had previously expressed support for the Letner/Hebrlee campaign.
The dismissed members appealed to the SGA judicial board, effectively the assembly’s supreme court, which reinstated them and declared their decision to disqualify Letner and Hebrlee “valid and final.”
On that basis, the election board met on Saturday, April 5, and voted to reaffirm nearly all the charges against Letner/Hebrlee and to remove the party from the ballot.
While social media sources such as Facebook featured extensive bickering between supporters of Letner/Hebrlee and Gorilla Alliance, a calm at last seemed to set in. Gorilla Alliance was set to win automatically, and SGA’s leaders prepared for them to take office.
Admins step in
It wasn’t over, though, and Mark Johnson, university professor of technology and workforce learning and Jeremy Johnson’s father, who is an expert on parliamentary procedure and was an SGA president in 1982-‘83, says there are important reasons why.
“An alleged act of talking about the other candidate can never be grounds for expulsion from the race,” he said. “Why would you kick out a candidate for that? Let’s be real. This is politics, if on a smaller scale. That happens.”
On Monday, April 7, Erwin, associate vice president of campus life and auxiliary services, declared that Letner/Hebrlee had not been given a fair shake.
He says that disqualification on the basis of personal attacks was too severe a punishment; that the election and judicial boards had committed several procedural errors; that the case against Letner and Hebrlee contained “gaps in due process.”
Erwin reinstated Letner/Hebrlee to the ballot. The various charges were not individually stricken down by this action, but functionally no longer apply.
Erwin says that as with most SGA decisions, election board actions are in effect recommendations to the administration that, under certain circumstances, may be overturned.
“I had an obligation to look at the record of what had happened,” he said, “and the totality of everything, from the charges to the consideration to the process, and render some sort of decision to either implement the recommended penalties or to not do so.”
Board members respond
Lindsay Ong and James Saltat, the SGA election board co-chairs, disagree.
“I felt that (Erwin) would respect the board’s decision,” Ong said. “We regulated the election fairly, we followed the whole checks and balances process. And then, suddenly, there was an additional check that just didn’t respect any of that.”
On the issue of whether the election board was too strict by removing Letner/Hebrlee, Ong says that both parties were aware of her expectations.
“The board went in with a very clear consensus that we were going to stick to the rules of personal attack campaigning and not tolerate it in any form,” she said. “We verbally warned the candidates, and they were part of the process of defining our guidelines.”
Strict implementation is entirely up to the board, Ong said, with SGA’s internal policing process through the judicial board to back it up.
“We’re being told that we can’t be strict. Why not? They’re rules. You can’t go back on them. This feels like parents fighting over how to discipline a child. One parent wants to give spankings, and the other won’t even consider timeout.”
Saltat says that during the election board’s review process, the members received advice from Erwin and David Adams, assistant director of campus activities.
During consultation with their advisers, he says, the board received no complaint that their procedures were out of order.
“We did everything by the book,” he said. “We may have made mistakes, but those were corrected … There was ultimately nothing done incorrectly that Lindsay or I could control as election board co-chairs.”
Joshua Packard, SGA public relations director and election board member, takes more aggressive issue with the circumstances.
“I fully do not recognize the administration’s actions in this process, because I feel like the election board was overturned unfairly. I feel the other party was wronged.
“I was friends with Jake, Jaecy, Jordan and Jaci before this; people see (the election board’s actions) as a personal vendetta. I just want to see the rules followed, and Letner/Hebrlee just didn’t follow them. If you play dirty, you’re not coming out clean.”
Go online for extended and ongoing Collegio coverage of this story at psucollegio.com.