Our investigation into how the Student Government Association’s finance committee determines how much money a student group receives began on Sept. 30. In the nearly two months we spent investigating, we spent a good deal of time pushing for access to both meetings and documents.
When public documents and records deal with public money, it is essential that they are open to the public. The money for SGA’s finance committee comes from Youngstown State University’s general fund, which is comprised of tuition dollars and state funding. Without a doubt, this money is public money provided by taxpayers and students.
The Ohio revised code states that, “all public records responsive to the request shall be promptly prepared and made available for inspection to any person at all reasonable times during regular business hours.” While at first, our requests for public records were fulfilled, requests made for updated budget reports — reports detailing appropriations that had been given out up to that point — were denied on Nov. 5, 7 and again on Nov. 8 following a clarification on our request.
In the email following our final request, Charesse Hagan, vice president of financial affairs, told us, “You have to wait until they are posted [online]. … There is nothing I can do; you have to wait.”
The updated budgets are not posted online. The items that are posted include the bill that the full SGA body votes on, the organization applications and the amount that the finance committee recommends to the body. The most recent updated budget report was posted on April 18, 2011.
Prior to this request, Catie Carney, the president of SGA, provided us with these reports dating back to 2010.
Our biggest problem while investigating dealt with access to meetings and the ability to record those meetings. We had two occasions where our reporters were told that they either could not attend meetings or that we must ask for permission to record meetings.
The first incident occurred on Oct. 21, when Carney came into The Jambar office after a full body meeting and told our editor-in-chief that The Jambar reporters must ask permission to record meetings. Our editor-in-chief explained that Ohio is a one-party consent state, but Carney still stressed that we ask permission to record these public meetings.
On Nov. 4, Hagan told a reporter that he would not be allowed to attend a finance committee meeting because of the supposed ill intent of the article and that recording the meetings made the committee uncomfortable. After telling Hagan that it was an open meeting, he was told that if he did not leave the meeting, the committee would not vote. Shortly after, Hagan once again told the reporter that he wasn’t allowed in the meeting.
Again, these meetings deal with public money — money that each and every student helps to provide — and are supposed to be open to anyone that wishes to attend. This is not an issue of our reporters being denied access to such meetings. This is an issue of first amendment rights being directly violated. It is an issue that we obviously care deeply about, but it is also one that Youngstown State University students should be concerned about.
This is your money and it is being spent without proper oversight.
As it was explained to us, all members of SGA, with the exclusion of freshman representatives, are elected to their positions. In this country, elected officials are expected to uphold the law of their position and serve their constituents. In this situation, part of that law is the First Amendment and their constituents are all of you.
This issue, while it exacerbated the problem, is not entirely the fault of student government. Voter turnout in spring’s election was less than one percent of the entire student body. If SGA isn’t getting feedback from the people that they are elected to represent and no one besides SGA members attend the meetings, there is no one to hold them accountable.
While there needs to be an understanding of the First Amendment amongst SGA, there also needs to be an understanding that SGA exists for you, the students. They need your feedback and your oversight to serve properly.
Student involvement informs SGA how they can do their jobs more effectively and what goals to strive for, and it informs you how they can help you and help student life at YSU. Everybody wins.