Slates, independent candidate face off in debate

By Danielle Fox / Staff Writer

A debate pitting Student Government Board candidates Tuesday evening served not only as a forum for the sharing of ideas, but also as a lesson in SGB programming.

During the debate, two candidates, Andrew Abboud and Ellie Tsatsos, were asked how knowledgeable they were about the Collegiate Readership Program, a program funded by the Board in which students can pick up free copies of the New York Times and USA Today on campus. They were also asked whether they supported the program. 

Though each said they used the program, both admitted they did not initially recognize it after moderator Matt Singer told them it brought free editions of The New York Times and USA Today to Pitt’s campus. 

Tsatsos and Abboud said they were aware of the program before Singer’s explanation, but were not familiar with its official name.

A similar problem arose when Abboud was asked for his opinion about the current price of the Student Activities Fee. Undergraduate students pay into the more than $2.3 million Student Activities Fund through an $80 fee each semester. The fund supports the Board’s budget and is distributed to student organizations through SGB’s Allocations Committee.

Abboud said during the debate that he did not know the current price and could not comment. After the debate, Abboud said he did not understand the question and thought he was supposed to answer specifically about the exact price, which Abboud said he had forgotten during the debate. The candidates who answered after Abboud expressed their opinions regarding the fee’s effectiveness and whether it should be changed, which Abboud said he would have felt comfortable commenting on.

“I was the first one up there,” said Abboud. “Had I understood, I would have liked to elaborate.”

Abboud, Tsatsos and the six other Board candidates in attendance sailed through the rest of the one-hour debate in Nordy’s Place. Singer, editor in chief for Pitt Political Review and WPTS news director, and Dave Uhrmacher, senior editor for Pitt Political Review, challenged the candidates, who did not confront one another on issues as they addressed the roughly 25 students in attendance. WPTS Radio and the SGB Elections Committee hosted the event, which was also broadcasted live on 92.1 FM and streamed online. 

Highlights from the debate:

Members of the Pitt Gold, Three Rivers and Forward slates, as well as independent candidate Jake Radziwon, fielded questions on the allocations process, the structure of SGB, student representation and transparency in the debate. 

During the event, the moderators asked the Board candidates about “transparency,” a word that Singer said is “paraded around as a buzzword.”

Ron Reha, a candidate from Pitt Gold slate, said he would update the Board’s minutes on the Board’s website as often as possible.

In a nod to former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Reha said he would try to institute fireside chats to provide the “widest space for dialogue” between the Board and the student body.

Sara Klein of Forward slate said SGB needs to vote publicly on its own budget. 

Mike Nites, who is running unopposed for SGB president and is also a member of Forward, said after the debate that the Board’s budget is privately submitted to the Allocations Committee. 

Nites said the committee usually denies a portion of the budget, but the Board appeals the decision to receive the full amount. 

Abby Zurschmit, who is running on Three Rivers slate, said the Board could improve transparency by involving more students through the establishment of a liaison system between student groups and committees. 

Board members already serve as liaisons to student organizations, but Zurschmit said after the debate that adding an additional liaison, who would be the committee chair or an appointed individual, would improve transparency by making the Board and committees more approachable and more connected to student organizations. 

Moderators also challenged the candidates in asking how they will improve SGB’s outreach to student groups. Uhrmacher added that candidates often seek endorsements from organizations during campaigning, but the groups’ “plights fall on deaf ears” after the election is over.

Rainbow Alliance President Brandon Benjamin, a member of Forward slate, said the Board has the reputation of an “allocations money machine.” He said the Board should “expand its communication system” by utilizing office hours to engage the students it represents face-to-face. He said after the debate that the Board should become more familiar with the programs and initiatives of each group it serves. 

“Knowing the names of the presidents of 50 groups that you’re liaison to is not that difficult,” he said.

The allocations budgeting process between student groups and SGB, Singer said, sometimes “occurs entirely behind closed doors.” Moderators asked candidates whether they would make the deliberations public or continue them in private. 

For Community Outreach Chairwoman Mona Kazour,  who is running as part of Three Rivers, the allocations process should be public, similar to the public meeting. 

“It’s a great way to see the thought processes,” Kazour said. 

Investigations last spring by The Pitt News identified six members of the Board as belonging to the Druids, a secret society on campus. In light of this, candidates were asked if they thought members of SGB should be required to disclose all campus involvements to the student body.

Radziwon said he believes Board members should reveal all of their ties to other groups.

“I have nothing to hide,” Radziwon said. 

Only one candidate for Board member, Lauren Barney, who is running as an independent candidate, did not participate in the debate because she had to work. Barney said she does not think her absence will affect her campaign.

Nites did not participate in the debate, but watched from the audience. Nites said that his abstention from the debate was a mutual decision between him, Elections Chairman Aaron Gish and the moderators.

“As an unopposed candidate, it makes a lot more sense to let the Board members who are fighting for the eight positions to go and have their voices be heard,” Nites said.

Editor’s Note: Dave Uhrmacher and Matt Singer are staff members of The Pitt News.