SGA breaks own bylaws, violates state law for years

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Oklahoma State's Student Government Association has been violating its own bylaws as well as state law for years by failing to file meeting notices with the county clerk, failing to post meeting agendas and allowing members to vote by proxy.

Oklahoma State’s Student Government Association has been in violation of multiple laws in the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act as well as its own bylaws for several years.

One of these laws has been violated since at least 2013.

Section 4.1.1 of the SGA Open Meetings Policy states: “All agendas and minutes of the SGA Senate shall be posted to the SGA website. All agendas must be posted 24 hours before the Senate convenience, and minutes must be posted to the final edit made by the SGA secretary.”

As of April 26, the last known agenda on the website was posted in January 2018. The last documented minutes were posted a few months before that in November 2017.

Section 4.1.2 of the same policy requirement states: “Notices shall be given to the county clerk of our regularly scheduled meetings for the SGA Senate.”

The Oklahoma OMA states other public bodies existing under the auspices of a state university or college, “but a majority of whose members are not members of the institution’s governing board must file their meeting notices with the county clerk where the school is principally located.”

SGA is an example of such a public body, but in her tenure since taking office in 2013, County Clerk Glenna Craig has never received any notices of any SGA meeting.

Craig said in addition to the absence of notices for regular meetings, notices for however many special meetings have taken place over the years are nowhere to be found either.

“They’re supposed to file by December of every year the regular meetings of the next year, all the dates and times of the regular meetings,” Craig said. “If they’re not going to have regular meetings and they’re going to have specials, they have to file those notices and agendas with me 48 hours before that meeting, excluding holidays and weekends, and that has not been done for SGA.”

In an extension of 4.1.2, rule 4.1.3.1 states: “The senate chair shall give notice in writing of the meeting dates, times and places for the following calendar year by December 15 of the current year.”

The rules of 4.1.2 and 4.1.3.1 are in place because of Oklahoma's Open Meetings Act (OMA), which has the same notice requirements.

The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals said providing the public with advance notices and agendas is at the “very heart” of the OMA.

Another act that SGA has failed to follow is proxy voting.

Proxy voting is when a senator sends another person to replace them and vote.

Voting by proxy violates the OMA per a 1982 attorney general’s opinion that says “proxy voting is the antithesis of personal voting.”

“The requirements that members be physically present for meetings to take place and that voting be done only at meetings, provide protection against secret decision-making and further the Legislative intent of facilitating the understanding of government by informed citizens,” former attorney general Jan Cartwright said. “No such protection can be afforded if voting by proxy is condoned.”

This year, there were proxy votes recorded on Feb. 26 and March 11, and there are recorded proxy votes dating back many years ago.

The SGA Internal Affairs Committee deals with and enforces the SGA bylaws. IA Chair Aaron Carmichael said SGA allows proxy voting.

“We do emphasize that if you’re sending a proxy because you got a bunch of homework, that’s not really the intended use for a proxy,” Carmichael said. “It’s more if you have another one-time commitment.”

Carmichael admitted to using proxies himself sometimes in fall 2018 because of other activities.

“I had to send a proxy a few times,” Carmichael said. “It was career fair season, and I had a ton of interviews and events for that.”

The violated acts are clear as what to expect in the open meetings act. Craig said the issue of not filing notices and agendas could’ve been occurring even before her tenure.

“That’s just as far back as we went through our records,” Craig said. “We keep all of these agendas and notices that we file in books, and we went back and SGA has filed nothing as we went back to 2013.”

In the state of Oklahoma, the maximum punishment for willfully violating the OMA is a $500 fine with up to one year in the county jail.

Providing agendas for the following year is expected of an organization that receives funding.

Mark Thomas has been the Executive Vice-President of the Oklahoma Press Association for 25 years, starting his tenure in 1983.

Thomas emphasized the importance of the public to know what’s happening with our government. Not abiding by the act is likely to cause confusion to the public just as to who their officials are.

“Every person from the founding of this country has the right to know what its government is doing and the opportunity to engage with its government,” Thomas said. “If I do not know when my government’s meeting, what records they’re keeping about me or actions they’re taking on my behalf, how do I know that I want to re-elect this person to this position? How do I know?”

Carmichael said he was unaware of SGA’s failure to file notice for meetings.

“I was not aware that it hasn’t happened since 2013,” Carmichael said. “We still want to be transparent with everybody.”

With this information, Carmichael said SGA is looking to be more transparent for the future with the public, but he doesn’t believe the act should be as rigid for an organization in college.

“We just don’t think that for a collegiate student government that following strictly is the best method to do that,” Carmichael said.

Thomas said even if breaking the act isn’t with malicious intent, the rules are still required to be followed in the manner which they were made.

A 1979 attorney general’s opinion states that the Residence Hall Association and the Student Government Organization at OSU are “subject to all requirements” of the OMA because they are sub-entities of a board of higher education.

Thomas said the AG opinion is an important voice toward abiding by the rules and procedures.

“It has the force of effective law, unless someone disagrees and decides to overturn it by going to court,” Thomas said. “[SGA] should follow the law. In all other areas of life, it doesn’t look good when you don’t follow the law. This is the same.”

Thomas said learning what the act is is necessary before people of public bodies take their respective positions in the government.

Thomas said the time to start following rules are now because further penalties can be enforced.

“If you are determined to be a public body, and you have willfully decided that you’re not going [follow the rules], this would also be a good time for you to realize that there could be both a fine and a jail term,” Thomas said. “So now is a good time to learn that lesson.”

The SGA president, vice-president, senate chair, and SGA secretary were reached but never responded to comment.

In spring 2011, The O’Colly published a similar article about SGA’s legal violations.The article reported on SGA’s failure to file notices and agendas with the county clerk.

news.ed@ocolly.com