Hannah Heisler | Senior Staff Photographer
After this year’s tumultuous Student Government Board election, the board voted Tuesday evening and passed a major governing code reform package released last week, but deferred voting on elections code reforms to the fall.
One bill proposed last week — Bill 2021-4 — was spearheaded by Ben King, vice president and chief of finance. The board’s Election Procedures Review task force, which convened after this year’s turbulent election to suggest reforms, wrote the bill after interviewing various parties involved in the election, as well as collecting student feedback and recommendations through a public comment form.
King said the Election Procedures Review task force wrote the bill without the consultation of SGB’s elections committee or the board itself — two groups who must pass the bill in order for SGB to implement the changes. According to King, the board and elections committee received the bill “around the same time everyone else did.” King said there will likely be modifications to the bill and the proposed revisions before board and elections committee votes.
“It’s not necessarily, does not necessarily have their support in its current form, because they basically received it at around the same time everyone else did,” King said. “They had a couple days notice but … the elections committee has to approve it, and the board has to approve it, and both of those are ongoing discussions.”
The task force recommended delaying the announcement of election results by a day, expanding SGB’s lists of punishments for elections code infractions and conducting independent investigations for filed infractions.
According to King, a major proposed revision is to postpone the announcement of election results by a day and release them on Wednesdays, so students can file complaints on possible infractions committed during election day and allow the elections committee to hold meetings and hearings in a timely manner.
Joe Landsittel, former presidential candidate and incoming co-chief of staff, also proposed a revision, which called to expand SGB’s sanctions and focus on handling the infraction instead of “punitively” punishing candidates. For example, according to King, if candidates are hanging posters in unauthorized areas, the elections committee would tell the candidates to remove the posters or limit where that candidate can hang posters.
Landsittel also recommended making hearings and investigations limited to whatever is in a filed complaint. The task force’s final report suggests that if a new violation is discovered, the defendant should be informed of the new infraction before another hearing would take place. He also urged the task force to restructure judicial hearings so defendants will have a rebuttal period before the judicial committee’s speaking period.
Landsittel and his slate were disqualified only hours before polls opened in this year’s SGB election after a sleepless night of elections and judicial committee hearings. Opposing presidential candidate Tyler Viljaste filed an infraction against the slate for distributing shot glasses in primarily first-year residence halls and breaking distribution policies.
Olivia Bartholomew, outgoing elections committee chair, said allowing defendants to prepare for hearings would make hearings less “messy,” and allow the defendants to gather and prepare their evidence and sources.
Viljaste, former presidential candidate and incoming co-chief of staff, proposed making complaints anonymous and having the elections committee conduct an independent investigation on reported infractions. He said it’s not about who filed the complaint, as the punishment should be the same regardless of the complainant.
“I think removing the complainant, or whoever files the complaint from the process, is really important because it’s not about who filed it, it’s about whether or not elections code was broken and it shouldn’t matter who filed the complaint,” Viljaste said. “If you’re being completely honest, the punishment should be up to the discretion of the elections committee.”
Additionally, the bill proposes that if an infraction violates a non-SGB policy, the elections committee can “defer” to the “interpretation” of the group who maintains that policy, something brought up due to the Vision slate originally being accused of breaking a Student Union policy.
While King believes many of the revisions are doable, he said one task force recommendation — increasing communication with Pitt’s student body — is out of SGB’s control because there are “only so many ways” to reach students.
“There’s so many students who get their information from so many different places, and there’s just so many, there’s only so many ways we could try to reach out to them,” King said.
Bartholomew said while she is unsure of the specific modifications she wants to make to the bill before voting, there is a “general agreement” among the elections committee on most issues presented in the changes.
“I think overall there is like a general agreement on most of the things,” Bartholomew said. “Just some things I think they’re just not aware of our perspective, which is fine. So that’s why we’re able to make these changes now, so it works for us.”
Landsittel said he is “largely happy” with the proposed changes, which addressed his core concerns. Viljaste said the proposals are “a step in the right direction” and reflect the Election Procedures Review task force’s hard work.
But Landsittel added that if SGB were to implement the changes, it would need “stronger” and more “clear” language, and the incoming board has to “take action” to enforce the new changes. Viljaste, who’s also the outgoing vice president and chief of cabinet, said he — along with other members of the board — were unsure about the punitive punishment revision, but he is in personal agreement with the bill.
“I think at the end of the day, like the overarching changes would have still led me to obviously approve the bill,” Viljaste said. “I think people have differing opinions whether or not punitive punishments are worthwhile, and I respect the fact that the elections task force spent a lot more time thinking about this than I did.”
Bill 2021-3 was the second bill presented last Tuesday, to be voted on in the fall, as determined during Tuesday’s public meeting. Stephen Jacobus, SGB’s judicial committee chair, said he introduced the idea of revising the dated SGB Constitution last January. Jacobus said although SGB passed a bill that revised the governing code earlier this year, many of the governing code’s revisions would have violated the Constitution — meaning the Constitution would have to be revised first.
Jacobus said both past and future revisions of the Constitution would give SGB more flexibility to change policies and procedures on a year-to-year basis, specifically with past revisions allowing SGB to meet virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our goal with this type of revision was to broaden what the Constitution says to allow us to more easily change policies and procedures on a year-to-year or term-to-term basis just to make it easier,” Jacobus said. “Like, I believe there was a provision that meetings had to be in person, that we wanted to change because, well, because [of] COVID, you can’t be in person.”
The constitutional changes include changing the vice president positions and redistributing responsibilities, redefining the Assembly and SGB’s definition of a “student,” as well as minor stylistic changes to increase readability.
With the Constitution revisions in place — after being placed on the election ballot as a referendum and passing with 89.47% of the vote — SGB can now implement governing code changes, which is the purpose of Bill 2021-3. Because the outgoing board and president created these revisions, which the incoming board and president will work under, Jacobus said the outgoing board is working with the incoming board to help understand and transition into the revised changes.
“The new board, or the board-elect, is already operating under it because we’ve created a new vice president’s position, as well as just changes and how the board operates,” Jacobus said. “So as part of the transition period, the old board, which helped write and OK these changes, are walking the board-elect through all these changes, and ensuring that they’re aware of everything that’s going on.”
One key change is the role and titles of vice presidents from executive vice president, chief of cabinet and chief of finance to vice president of operations, vice president of initiatives and vice president of governance. Jacobus said these changes were made due to too many responsibilities falling upon the executive vice president and chief of staff, which may have restricted their ability to function as part of the board or office of the president.
“We wanted to create three new roles that could accommodate and handle different components of what needs to get done,” Jacobus said. “Hopefully that would allow all the board members to have their full roles as board members and administrators and allow the chief of staff to return to better serving the president and the president’s agenda.”
According to Jacobus, the vice presidential positions and their responsibilities are:
Vice president of governance, in charge of shared governance and transitioning outcoming and incoming SGB members
Vice president of initiatives, oversee conditional committees — the wellness committee, academic affairs committee, community and governmental relations committee, diversity and inclusion committee, as well as the facilities, technology and transportation committee — which act as liaisons between SGB and Pitt’s student body to represent and support students and make positive changes around campus
Vice president of operations, oversee the standing committees — the allocations, elections and judicial committee — which are core branches of how SGB operates and maintains a “system of checks and balances.” The previous chief of staff responsibilities, such as monitoring free legal consultations and The New York Times subscriptions, will also be part of the vice president of operations’ responsibilities
If the president decides to step down, the vice president of operations would be appointed as the new president. According to Jacobus, vice president of operations would replace the president due to the nature of their responsibilities, which are closest with the president’s responsibilities, and therefore will ensure “the least interruption in how SGB runs.”
Jacobus said all the vice president positions are equal, but “oversee different components of SGB’s day-to-day operations.”
A board member would then be appointed as vice president of operation, and the board will convene to appoint a new board member to complete the previous board member’s term. If the “new” president — previously the vice president of operations — decides to step down, the new vice president of operations would become the new president, and the cycle would repeat.
Besides the new vice president positions, Jacobus said board members will now be connected with a specific conditional committee — including the wellness committee, academic affairs committee, community and governmental relations committee, diversity and inclusion committee, as well as the facilities, technology and transportation committee — to allow for better and smoother communication between SGB and Pitt’s student body.
“They can just be a helpful link in that chain, so they can be the person you go to with ideas, complaints, what have you, and it’s just a better defined role within SGB to make us more presentable and easier to communicate with,” Jacobus said.
Another main change is adjusting the role of the Assembly — a lower legislative body of SGB that can introduce and pass resolutions — to better reflect its evolved role. Jacobus said instead of passing legislation, the Assembly became more of an advisory committee to the board and the revisions will now match this advisory role.
Other minor changes include expanding the definition of a “student” to both part-time and full-time non-CGS students, requiring conditional committees, ad-hoc committees and task forces to create a charter and have bylaws, as well as many minor, stylistic changes to make the Constitution and governing code “easier to read,” according to Jacobus.
Jacobus said many of these changes make SGB more approachable because even if a student has never spoken to a board member before, they can more easily understand the roles and responsibilities of SGB’s members and know who to talk to for recommendations or concerns. He said these new changes will allow SGB to address problems by being more approachable to the student body and operating more efficiently on campus.
Jacobus said despite their importance, both the elections and governing code documents are “monsters,” especially for people who are not familiar with what they entail. Jacobus said even he gets caught up in the “idiosyncrasies,” but making these changes will make the documents clearer for students who are not as familiar with SGB.
“I know [these documents] better than most members of SGB because it’s my job for the last two years — to know them and to help other people understand them, and even sometimes still I find myself getting lost in some of the idiosyncrasies that we’ve hopefully completely eliminated with this process,” Jacobus said. “But we’ve tried in these changes to make it more approachable and clear for everyone to read, not just SGB members specifically.”
This story has been updated.