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SGA violating state open meeting laws

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SGA members take part in the pledge of allegiance prior to their meeting.

Editor's note: The O'Colly became aware of the Student Government Association's use of proxies on its own and approached Joey Senat about SGA's actions.

An Oklahoma media law expert said Oklahoma State’s Student Government Association is violating open meeting law when senators use proxies and don’t include attendance in meeting minutes.

Joey Senat, the Freedom of Information Oklahoma communications chairman, said SGA is violating a 1982 Oklahoma attorney general’s opinion against proxy voting. Proxy voting is when a senator sends another person to take his or her place and vote at a meeting.

“If it’s an (attorney general's) opinion that applies to the Open Meeting Act, then it applies to (SGA), they’re subject to it,” said Senat, an OSU journalism professor. “They’re a public body; they’re not in a special exception like the state legislature.

“When it says proxy vote, I see that as it must be publicly cast and recorded. … The person must be present to vote.”

The opinion states “proxy voting is the antithesis of personal voting,” and that proxy voting “doesn’t conform to the standard for voting under the Open Meeting Act.”  The act states members of a public body must cast their votes publicly and have them recorded.

Senate Vice-Chairman Andrew Price said he didn’t think the opinion applied to SGA.

“Based on my reading of this, the opinion is in reference to the houses of government in Oklahoma City,” Price said. “And, in reference to the Open Meeting Act, we follow the Open Meeting Act to an extent, but we are a paragovernment (sic) organization.

“That being said, there are aspects of the OMA that as an educational institution we’re not required to follow and, as a non-state legislative body, we’re not required to follow.”

But Senat said all of the Open Meeting Act applies to SGA.

“They don’t get to pick and choose which parts of the Open Meeting Act to follow,” Senat said. “There’s an attorney general’s opinion that states they have to follow (the Open Meeting Act).”

The 1979 attorney general opinion states SGA and the Residence Hall Association are “compelled to follow the provisions of the act in the manner in which they were enacted.”

Price said he thought proxies mentioned in the attorney general’s opinion “operated under a different set of rules” than SGA.

“Our bylaws do allow for proxies to vote,” Price said. “I just feel that even given that attorney general’s opinion, that is something that we allow then, and we have that in writing that we allow that privilege to them.”

Price said the bylaws don’t trump state law but said he assumed the state opinion applied to only state legislators.

“Just not even reading it, it would probably be proxies in reference to the actual state government,” Price said. “It’s not uncommon for representatives to send someone there to take notes to the state house, but they can’t vote because they’re not elected.

“So that might very well be what that’s referring to. Again, I haven’t read it.”

SGA Senate Chairman Bradley Burt said he also thought the organization needs proxies because of some senators’ busy schedules.

“We like to have proxies because all of us here are student leaders,” Burt said. “Tests come up, papers, other engagements senators have to do because they’re all so involved around campus.

“There are just some times where they can’t make those meetings and rather than have an empty seat and a voice not being heard, we’d like to have the proxies because they’re from the same group as the senator.”

SGA’s president also defended using proxies. Dillon Johnson said he understands the organization should follow the Open Meeting Act but said senators have unique circumstances.

Johnson also said he’d step back on the situation, and any changes would be up to Burt.

“I think as far as looking at how we’ve operated in the past, our schedules are hectic, especially for students in leadership roles like senate,” Johnson said. “I think we probably should have been following it, but I don’t think there’s been any harm done in allowing proxies up to this point.”

Burt said unless there’s a legal challenge to SGA’s use of proxies, he believes the organization isn’t breaking the law and won’t change its practices.

“I don’t think it’s in violation,” Burt said. “If we were to be found in violation or if someone wants to present us with a lawsuit to do that or whatever, we’d talk to our legal counsel to see if we’re actually in violation.”

SGA bylaws state proxies have to be from the senator’s constituency, and Price said the distinction means any proxy would also be eligible as a senator but not elected.

“All of our proxies could be a senator, and all of our proxies are extended (voting powers) at the beginning of every meeting,” Price said.

Proxy forms must have a senator’s signature and basic information about the proxy, as well as a reason for the senator’s absence. Price said the senate has copies of proxy forms dating only to January.

Price said initially he could release the forms as part of open record, but Susan Simmons, administrative support specialist, said the request would need to go through John Mark Day’s office of leadership and campus life.

When Day, director of leadership and campus life, was on leave Friday, the O’Colly filed a request through OSU Communications seeking the forms’ release. Board of Regents Legal Counsel Brandee Hancock approved the request, and the form was returned to Simmons’ office.

Simmons said the request wouldn’t be filled until Monday when Day returned from leave despite the counsel office’s approval.

However, Senat said withholding the forms and the runaround to get the records wasn’t “in the spirit or the letter” of the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

“If it’s a public record, you’re entitled to it,” Senat said. “It’s not at a public agency’s discretion. … (The records) should be made available on the spot if they’re there.”

Senat said SGA is also violating the Open Meeting Act in its meeting minutes. The published SGA minutes posted outside its offices and on its website include voting results and summaries but don’t list attendance.

The act states minutes “shall be an official summary of the proceedings showing clearly those members present and absent, all matters considered by the public body, and all actions taken by such public body.”

Those records, showing which senators used proxies at each meeting, are kept in a separate internal spreadsheet for only a year, so there is no way to know how often elected senators cast their own votes.

Johnson said the group keeps the spreadsheet to track senator’s absences and enforce attendance rules.

“Everything’s on a semester basis,” Johnson said. “So you get so many absences in a semester before you get kicked out, or so many proxies. It’s very utilitarian as far as what we need and how we need to keep it, and that’s why it’s only ever been kept to my knowledge for the semester.”

Johnson, who also served as senate vice-chairman in 2015, said attendance is usually kept in a spreadsheet that sometimes includes both semesters.

Senators are allowed four proxies per semester, according to SGA bylaws. The senate vice-chairman is responsible for keeping those attendance records.

Price said attendance records were kept only to hold senators accountable internally.

“They keep them just to make sure people are showing up,” Price said. “And after that semester, it’s just done away with. It’s not like a formal thing.

“There’s actually nothing that says we have to keep attendance; it’s just that things would happen if people don’t show up.”