The 48 hours that changed an SGB election

Last week’s Student Government Board elections were unusually contentious when two committees disqualified the Vision slate mere hours before voting started. Here’s an in-depth analysis into the 48 hours that altered the course of the election.

Student+Government+Board%E2%80%99s+elections+and+judicial+committees+each+held+hearings+less+than+24+hours+before+polls+opened+at+8+a.m.+on+March+2+after+two+complaints+were+filed+against+the+Vision+slate.

Thomas Yang | Senior Staff Photographer

Student Government Board’s elections and judicial committees each held hearings less than 24 hours before polls opened at 8 a.m. on March 2 after two complaints were filed against the Vision slate.

Elections every spring for the following year’s Student Government Board are usually full of little fanfare from the student body.

That is until SGB’s elections committee convened last Monday at 6 p.m. to hear a complaint about allegedly unauthorized distribution of shot glasses in a primarily first-year residence hall by a slate of candidates running in last week’s elections.

The elections committee’s ruling later that night to disqualify the Vision slate from the election would ultimately set off a sleepless night of phone calls, texts and a Zoom appeal hearing from the board’s judicial committee kicking off at 1:45 a.m. Tuesday. When they awoke the next morning, enraged students would launch a firestorm of comments at SGB, asking how it could be that candidates were removed from the ballot at 5:10 a.m., in the dead of night and less than three hours before students would begin casting votes.

The students took to social media to personally attack Vision’s rival, Brightside slate — the only other slate which ran a presidential candidate in this year’s elections — and its presidential candidate, Tyler Viljaste. Viljaste filed the shot glass complaint and a separate complaint about unauthorized posting of posters in two residence halls. He would later say that he filed police reports due to threats, and Pitt officials said late last week that they had received a conduct referral related to behavior targeted at Viljaste.

SGB officials only settled the confusion over why exactly Vision had been removed from the ballot — at one point officials had publicly stated three different, competing reasons for the disqualification — five hours after polls opened, at 1 p.m. Tuesday. But by that point, SGB and the two committees charged with adjudicating the shot glass complaint and its appeal were placed under the microscope. The chaos Tuesday ended with sophomore Harshitha Ramanan elected as next year’s SGB president by a two-to-one margin over the favored Viljaste. Heading into election day, she only had four official campaign endorsements, compared to 40 for Viljaste and 23 for Landsittel.

Student Government Board held its presidential debate over Zoom on Feb. 26. (Zoom screenshot)

 

Duo of complaints filed Sunday

Viljaste filed two complaints with SGB’s elections committee on Sunday, Feb. 28. The first complaint alleged that Vision posted promotional fliers in residence halls without permission from the elections committee chair, which would violate SGB’s elections code. Viljaste learned of the posters from an Instagram story post showing a Vision poster hung in Sutherland Hall.

Viljaste filed the second complaint, which discussed the shot glasses, after first-years living in Sutherland Hall — a primarily first-year residence hall — contacted him. Viljaste said he filed the infraction because not only did Vision break SGB’s elections code, but the shot glasses were “very problematic” and promoted binge drinking with their “now I’m seeing double” inscription.

In the second infraction, Viljaste claimed Vision broke the section of Pitt’s Student Unions’ Policies and Procedures Handbook, which states “the simulation of alcohol consumption is prohibited as merchandise sales or event activities,” which includes “shot glass sales.” This handbook only applies to the William Pitt Union, O’Hara Student Center or other rented spaces on campus.

Viljaste also claimed the Vision slate did not disclose purchases of Hershey’s Kisses, which the slate distributed inside the shot glasses, as required by SGB’s elections code. SGB’s public elections finance log states that the Vision slate received the candy as a donation from the National Residence Hall Honorary.

A shot glass received by a first-year resident in Sutherland Hall.

Based on the two alleged infractions, Viljaste “strongly” suggested the elections committee either disqualify Vision or refer the matter to the Office of Student Conduct for possible violations of the Student Code of Conduct. These are among the several sanctions that SGB’s elections code empowers the committee with.

According to Aboli Kesbhat, a Brightside slate board candidate and current SGB allocations committee chair, infractions are filed regularly throughout election campaigns, and this process works “to keep candidates in check” and ensure a “free, fair election.” Kesbhat also said any Pitt student can file infractions against candidates at any time during election campaigns.

Ravi Gandhi, a junior and Vision’s campaign manager, countered and said the committees had a “poor policy interpretation” that led to “undemocratic and unprecedented steps.” He said the committees treated Vision like they were “guilty until proven innocent” and the charges amounted to a “witch hunt.” It is unclear the last time SGB has disqualified an entire slate.

Elections committee processes complaints Sunday, Monday evenings

According to Olivia Bartholomew, the chair of SGB’s elections committee, the committee met Sunday afternoon for a hearing about the poster complaint. According to a letter from the committee posted to the SGB website Monday evening, the committee found the slate guilty and required it to remove the posters as soon as possible. It also cut the slate’s tabling time last Monday in half, from one hour to 30 minutes.

Later that same day, the committee received another complaint filed by Viljaste, this time regarding the shot glasses.

The elections committee did not hold a hearing Sunday night about the shot glass complaint due to scheduling conflicts among members, Bartholomew said, and instead scheduled one for 6 p.m. Monday. Per a recently revised section of SGB’s elections code, the committee must schedule a hearing within 24 hours if it receives a complaint within 72 hours of election day and one-third of the committee votes that it “merits” a hearing.

The hearing notice repeated Viljaste’s allegation that Vision had broken what he referred to as “student affairs official guidelines” and the committee referred to as “Student Affairs Policies and Procedures,” but was actually the Student Unions’ Policies and Procedures Handbook.

Bartholomew said it is not her place to conduct any “interpretation” on complaints alleging infractions, and she must only copy and paste it as received into a hearing notice.

The elections committee hearing lasted about two and a half hours Monday and ended at about 8:30 p.m., according to Bartholomew.

After the committee deliberated for about 45 minutes, it unanimously concluded that the Vision slate was guilty — but not of the alleged infractions Viljaste listed in his complaint.

The committee found Vision guilty of not following its shot glass distribution plan submitted Feb. 12, which stated that the slate would drop the shot glasses with “no-contact distribution” at the South Oakland houses of the friends of Vision slate members. Bartholomew said while distribution plans are not formally part of SGB’s elections code, she has the authority under a recently revised part of the code to change election procedures, including activities during targeted campaigning, depending on Pitt’s current COVID-19 operating posture.

Bartholomew added that the Student Organization Resource Center, an arm of Student Affairs that provides student organizations with shared administrative services, told her that any physical products handed out during this year’s SGB election needed to have a distribution plan submitted for approval.

“It was not distributed at all as was stated in their distribution plan,” Bartholomew said. “And there was no correspondence to me about wanting to change that at all, or nothing like that. We just didn’t receive any change in that distribution plan.”

With regard to a potential Student Code of Conduct violation, Bartholomew pointed to a new rule recently added to the code, which states that students and student organizations must “comply with guidance set forth by the University, federal, state and/or local authorities regarding public health and/or safety.” Student Affairs spokesperson Janine Fisher said Pitt received a conduct referral late Thursday related to the elections committee.

“It was not approved activity by the school,” Bartholomew said.

Joe Landsittel, a junior and the Vision presidential candidate, acknowledged that his slate could have “done a better job communicating” with the elections committee, but said violating its shot glass distribution plan is “nowhere near close enough to a good reason” to disqualify the slate. Landsittel also said the distribution plan violation has “no basis” because it was not part of the original Sunday evening notice violation levied against them.

He added that the Feb. 12 distribution plan focused on South Oakland houses because according to the distribution plan, “shot glasses are not permitted on University property.” But Landsittel said Vision used this language because Pitt was still in its shelter-in-place period at the start of the spring semester. He said once the shelter in place ended on Feb. 16, Vision received approval to distribute shot glasses in residence halls from an assistant residence director.

Joe Landsittel was the Vision slate’s presidential candidate in the 2021 Student Government Board elections. (Courtesy of Joe Landsittel)

In terms of COVID-19 safety, Gandhi said Vision focused on “no-contact distribution.” He said they sanitized all the glasses before handing them out. Gandhi added that the elections committee provided “no guidance” on how to create a distribution plan, and most of this planning occurred over texts and phone calls between him and Bartholomew.

“We were told that we just need to make sure we’re being COVID safe. We made sure we’re being COVID safe, we made sure to go to higher admin and make sure we’re staying COVID safe. We did it in very much good faith,” Gandhi said. “We didn’t just say, ‘Alright look here’s the plan technically Joe is not introducing any new contacts let’s just go YOLO.’”

Members of the Vision slate also slammed the elections committee hearing as “biased” and not “impartial.” Gandhi said the committee openly mocked his slate in the proceedings.

“They were laughing at us and mocking us, and they made statements that clearly showed they were biased. At one point they started yelling at us and said … essentially that this is personal for me and I have a stake in these alcohol-related issues,” Gandhi said. “The common sense of the Pitt community was able to see through their quote-unquote independent and fair process because it wasn’t.”

Bartholomew said she did not see any laughing or mocking behavior from the committee, and would have “insisted that this behavior would cease” if she saw it.

Gandhi added that the elections committee structure needs to be overhauled so they don’t have “unlimited” and “unrestricted” power. He said there were only five people on the committee — which highlights the “flaws” in the process that allowed them to be taken off the ballot. According to SGB’s governing code, the number of committee members is determined by the chairperson up to a maximum of eight members, but there can be no fewer than six members after the second week of the fall semester.

“The actual infrastructure of the elections committee and code is extremely weak in controlling them and gives them almost unlimited power,” Gandhi said. “It highlighted the flaws in the elections committee process and how significant the people in it there rather than how important the code is in controlling those people. It took five people who did not have a solid policy interpretation or understanding of University policy.”

Daniel Rudy, a junior and Vision board candidate, also said the committee hearing demonstrated “structural issues” within SGB. According to SGB’s elections code, the elections committee must not “endorse or take bias towards any candidates, slates or issues.” But the president is part of a team of people that choose the elections and judicial committee chairs and members.

“They work together with SGB throughout the year, if not in title at least informally. Like these people know each other,” Rudy said. “While I don’t claim that they were outwardly and explicitly biased because of that there’s always going to be some level of bias when people you’ve been working with are bringing a case against people you’ve never heard of. I don’t see how they can claim that the process was independent and bias-free.”

Bartholomew said she highly values the full adjudication process outlined in the elections code, and thinks it fully played itself out. She added the elections committee operates as an “impartial body” and “thought really hard” about what was presented to it and how best to respond.

The elections committee announced its verdict in a one-page document posted only to the SGB website at 10:11 p.m. Monday. Bartholomew said at the time, she did not think to share the announcement on social media and thought people would gravitate toward SGB’s website. She added that the elections committee only created social media accounts this year, and that she runs them herself.

“I think we just thought that putting the statement on the website — the first one, that’s just from the elections committee itself — would have been suffice and we thought [it] would have spread,” Bartholomew said. “In hindsight, maybe it was not.”

Bartholomew said she did not consider postponing the election to a later date. The elections code states that any changes to the elections timetable must be announced 24 hours prior to the originally scheduled event, making 8 a.m. Monday the deadline to push back the following day’s elections.

“The elections committee did … take a lot of time out of their schedules, especially within the last Sunday, Monday leading up to the election, and they’re committed to getting things done as soon as possible,” Bartholomew said.

Judicial committee hears early morning appeal

The judicial committee logged on at 1:45 a.m. to hear an appeal from Vision of the elections committee’s ruling. Seven of the committee’s eight members were present — Mateen Kasim, a junior and the boyfriend of Brightside’s Kesbhat, had recused himself from the hearing and the deliberations. The hearing would last until nearly 4 a.m., and the committee would announce shortly after 5 a.m. that it upheld the elections committee’s disqualification of Vision.

SGB’s judicial committee, chaired by Stephen Jacobus, is charged as the board’s adjudicating body and appellate court. As outlined in the board’s governing documents, the committee is responsible for handling any appeals from the elections committee.

Although Jacobus said this situation was one that he “would have liked to have consulted with” Steve Anderson — SGB’s adviser, an associate dean of students and director of the Office of Residence Life — Jacobus said he did not due to Anderson’s involvement with both the Vision slate and Viljaste.

“As the judicial chairman, I made sure to sort of essentially sequester my committee because it is important we not be influenced by anyone other than the two parties that will be presenting evidence to us,” Jacobus said. “I know that Steve Anderson was consulted by Vision slate. I believe he was also consulted by Tyler before they presented evidence to us.”

Besides Anderson, Jacobus said other members of Student Affairs and the Resident Student Association, as well as resident directors and lead resident assistants, had all been consulted by both the Vision slate and Viljaste. Viljaste said he consulted with DaVaughn Vincent-Bryan, interim associate director of residential experience, and Justin Vallorani, Sutherland Hall’s resident director.

Landsittel said Vision consulted with an assistant residence director prior to distributing the shot glasses to “confirm there was no issue with University policy.” He said after the election hearing and before the judicial hearing, he contacted another resident director to confirm again that there was no issue. Landsittel declined to provide specific names of the people he spoke with.

Landsittel added that he felt as though his slate were on a “moral trial,” rather than one rooted in policy. He said while Vision was accused of breaking the Student Code of Conduct, the committees didn’t ask about specific sections the slate allegedly broke and instead posed questions related to the potential for underage drinking.

“We were asked obscure moral questions — is it immoral for me to have offered shot glasses to my residents, does that present a health risk,” Landsittel said. “Clearly I believe that it does not present a health risk and it does not put anybody in danger and that it’s not immoral.”

Rudy also said both hearings focused on a variety of topics — including hypothetical questions — that strayed heavily from the original accusations lodged against them. This left Vision unable to respond or prepare, Rudy added.

“There were, quite frankly, absurd hypotheticals brought up about situations we couldn’t have been expected to reply to,” Rudy said. “Those hearings were not rooted in the material that was brought forth.”

Landsittel said if SGB or Pitt want to legislate handing out shot glasses, they should put it in the elections code.

“If the University holds a different moral opinion than me or if the elections committee holds a different moral opinion than me, it’s important that they legislate their morals into University policy or the elections code,” Landsittel said. “We cannot be expected to make decisions based on a potential moral opinion held by these committee members.”

Jacobus said the judicial hearing was “in no way a moral trial,” and that “the morality or lack thereof” was not part of the committee’s deliberations. He also said the committee did not make any “improper questions” or “improper considerations.”

Jacobus added that his committee is a “broad, diverse group” of students and that he and the panel were focused on “staying up for 48 hours to ensure the election worked out and everyone was treated fairly and the election was handled properly.”

But Jacobus did note that the elections committee process involved several errors, though none were “substantial.” These errors include Viljaste “mistakenly” believing that the Student Unions handbook applied to residence halls and “improper wording” by the committee in sending the Vision slate a notice of “direct violation” of the Student Unions handbook.

“The elections committee — I assure you, I was present throughout the whole hearing as well as the deliberations — no one entered that hearing with any preconceived notions about guilt,” Jacobus said. “I assure you that it was the goal of the committee to get down to the absolute truth of what actions were taken, the mental state of both parties as could best be ascertained in the hearing, as well as possible ulterior motives of either candidate in these actions taken.”

Jacobus added that the judicial committee’s hearings and decisions are not intended for the public to see, but rather for internal use only.

“Our decision is meant to be more of an internal decision sent to the elections committee to … defer to the elections committee as the main body handling elections. Their statement is meant to be public,” Jacobus said. “As a piece of that, when the elections committee adjudicates a decision like this, automatically a statement is made to go on the website. And they can take additional measures to release a public statement how they see fit.”

But some people would prefer the hearings be made public. Gandhi said the judicial committee hearing felt like a “crucifixion,” because members of his slate couldn’t properly defend themselves. He said he wishes members of the public could provide their input.

“The judicial hearing felt not like a hearing. It didn’t feel like a debate. It was 20 mins, 20 mins, 20 mins and we presented our case first,” Gandhi said. “We gave an opening statement, but no matter how many lies there were, how many attacks there were, there was nothing we could do to defend ourselves. Because these are private hearings — there’s no repercussions for lies.”

Ravi Gandhi was the Vision slate’s campaign manager in the 2021 Student Government Board elections. (Rachhana Baliga | Staff Photographer)

By the time the judicial committee announced its decision at 5:10 a.m. Tuesday, Bartholomew said she was the only person on the elections committee still awake. The judicial committee would ultimately not comment publicly about the decision until 1 p.m. Tuesday, when Jacobus and Bartholomew released a joint statement about the events of the previous night.

Jacobus said the elections committee decided that posting its Monday evening statement on the SGB website, as well as word of mouth, would be enough to inform the student body of SGB’s decision. But he admitted that SGB can work to improve on communication.

“In hindsight, it likely would have been better for us to communicate that statement a little bit further and wider than was done. It probably would have been better for us to send that statement out to as many of the eligible voting population on campus as we could have,” Jacobus said. “Looking back on that, we realize that that was just a failure of communication between us — SGB — and the student body.”

Jacobus added that while there are no “major flaws” in the complaint adjudication process, he is looking to “pretty seriously overhaul” communications requirements to ensure that committee actions are communicated clearly to students. Jacobus said he would like to see both current and incoming board members tackle this issue.

While in the heat of the moment, Jacobus said he found the situation “bizarre” and that it gave him a “crisis of conscience,” where it seemed as though “everyone had turned on [SGB]” in just 24 hours, despite the time that SGB has put in throughout the pandemic to advocate for students.

“There were a few moments where we sort of sat back in the heat of trying to contain everything, looked at each other and said, ‘How weird is it that, Olivia, you and I right now are here, sweating bullets, stressed to physical illness and there’s students right now in Tower C who don’t even know that SGB exists?’” Jacobus said. “That there’s a large swath of students … there was about 13,000 undergraduate students who did not vote in the election. So what was such a major deal to us all weekend turned out to be something that approximately … a quarter or less of the student population or less cared to vote about.”

Brightside faces social media firestorm

After the judicial committee’s decision affirming Vision’s removal from the ballot, the slate quickly took action, sending emails to clubs who endorsed them and posting Reddit threads that contained strongly worded critiques of SGB — describing it as an “impenetrable clique” — and of Viljaste. The emails and Reddit threads urged students to vote for Ramanan. The slate even briefly changed its Instagram username to “voteharshitha.”

“As Pitt was sleeping, SGB coordinated an effort to throw out our campaign: they overturned the election less than 3 hours before voting started,” the email said. “They succeeded because the Elections Committee has the ability to get rid of candidates and votes with a simple majority — it only took 3 people: 3 SGB insiders and our campaign was gone literally overnight.”

The email went on to mention Viljaste by name.

“Using the incorrect University policy, which we definitely proved false, Tyler Viljaste was able to accomplish something that his 3 weeks of slandering wasn’t able to: preventing us from getting elected,” the email said.

Kesbhat said the attacks were based on “misrepresented facts” that were spread by the Vision slate, which she said placed Viljaste at the center of the controversy. She said while Vision had the opportunity to dispel rumors against Viljaste, they chose not to.

“You had the opportunity to publish something that said that elections and judicial committee decision is something that we don’t agree with, yet you put Tyler’s name on it and made it so that the community came for Tyler, and that’s not OK,” Kesbhat said. “They know what they were doing.”

Both Kesbhat and Viljaste said none of Brightside’s candidates, including Viljaste, were involved in the elections or judicial committees’ “deliberation” or “interpretation” of Viljaste’s presented evidence. Viljaste attended the elections and judicial committee hearings to present his case as the person who filed the complaint.

On platforms such as Instagram and Reddit, Pitt students harassed Viljaste and the Brightside slate, calling them “corrupt” and “anti-democratic.” According to Kesbhat, the slate received blackmailing threats and threats to leak and visit Viljaste’s home address. She said students also reached out to the slate members’ families.

Landsittel said his slate condemns any hateful or threatening messages Viljaste received. He said Vision is concerned with structural failings of SGB, not Viljaste.

“We wanted to make our grievances with the elections process absolutely clear, and make sure this never happens to anybody again, but we do not condone any character attacks toward Tyler, any threats toward Tyler,” Landsittel said. “We want absolutely no part of that and we think that is shameful that he received that level of hate.”

Vision condemned personal attacks against Viljaste in a Wednesday post on Instagram, calling him a “decent man of good standing.”

Kesbhat said even though students may disagree with Brightside’s initiatives, they should not resort to harassment to voice their frustration.

“It’s one thing to disagree with our initiatives and what we want to do for the school,” Kesbhat said. “It’s another thing to take everything we are as a human being and completely degrade it to something that you don’t really understand.”

Tyler Viljaste, vice president and chief of cabinet for Student Government Board, was the Brightside slate’s presidential candidate in the 2021 SGB elections. (Courtesy of Tyler Viljaste)

Viljaste said he recently talked with Landsittel to talk about the harassment, and Viljaste said Landsittel admitted that although the harassment was not intended, Vision did play a role in Tuesday’s events.

“Joe admitted that …  they didn’t intend for things to go as far as they did, they didn’t intend for this to turn into the hatred and harassment and everything that was leveled towards me, but they acknowledged the role that they played in that, because there were a lot of factors at play,” Viljaste said.

Landsittel said he reached out to Viljaste after the election to “make sure that everything is well.”

Current SGB president urges calm

SGB president Eric Macadangdang said the comments and harassment on social media have gotten out of hand since Tuesday. He issued a statement Thursday urging people to refrain from harassing people affiliated with SGB, mainly Viljaste and his slate.

“More than SGB members, more than students, we are human beings,” Macadangdang said. “I think the highly volatile, highly emotional day that was Tuesday reduced people to act and say things that were not respectful, that were not truthful, and I think that was compounded by the fact that we are still in a pandemic and all of our communication is behind a screen. Our words in absence feel different when you can say it over the screen.”

He added that the harassment targeted at Viljaste reached a threshold where he couldn’t be silent any longer.

“At the end of the day, we can have a lively debate on ideas, but when we start threatening and saying things that make people fear for their safety, that’s the line we have to draw,” Macadangdang said. “We have to draw that line deeply to make sure that people know that this is unacceptable behavior.”

Macadangdang said the University is processing a Code of Conduct referral from the elections and judicial committees against Vision. He added that the issue had risen “above the role” of the committees.

“As outlined in our elections code, if there is any infraction or conduct that potentially breaks a policy that isn’t housed exclusively in SGB, so that could mean the Code of Conduct, then the elections committee is compelled to refer the infraction to the relevant office or group,” Macadangdang said. “The rationale behind that is we’re not the judge of everything here. We want to make sure that the appropriate bodies are the ones handling due process and hearing both sides and dealing with potential consequences.”

Eric Macadangdang is the president of Student Government Board for the 2020-21 academic year. (Hannah Heisler | Senior Staff Photographer)

Regarding the delay between the 5 a.m. decision to remove Vision from the ballot and the 1 p.m. statement explaining their rationale, Macadangdang said there was good reason for the two committees to delay putting out a statement before the polls opened 8 a.m. Tuesday.

“The judicial appeal process ended at about 5 a.m., so I think that people were sort of pushed to their limits,” Macadangdang said. “The statement is an attempt to further clarify many of the misconceptions and potential mistruths that were being disseminated. That was sort of a response to what we saw in the morning and afternoon.”

In his statement, Macadangdang said SGB will work closely with parties involved and Student Affairs in the coming days to further evaluate and investigate several issues that arose.

“It means supporting any efforts in terms of making sure people can get connected to the conduct office, because people have allegated comments being made that were threatening or harassing, which is not in line with the Code of Conduct,” Macadangdang said. “And making sure going forward we work together cohesively in making sure that we educate people in what our processes are.”

Macadangdang said the public can attend SGB’s weekly public meetings on Tuesday evenings, as well as attend office hours or submit concerns through an online form.

“I don’t fully subscribe to the idea that SGB is this insular organization that doesn’t touch the public at all,” Macdangdang said. “We have the infrastructure in place, but that’s not to say we have executed or communicated things as well as we could have, so that’s going to be a major opportunity for us going forward, making sure the student body knows who we are and what we’re here to do for them.”

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