Appointed commissioners are a bad idea

    The Grove Caffe and A.S. Lecture Notes are student-run entertrpises, generating profits that go directly to the dtudent government. These mini-businesses are operated by the commissioner of entreprise operations, who is also reponsible for creating any new student-run operations.

    The A.S. Council came within seven votes of taking away our right to elect this commissioner, as well as to elect the student officers charged with defending students’ rights, promoting diversity and representing the needs of undergraduates to the Academic Senate. The council narrowly failed a constitutional amendment that, once passed by four of the six college councils, would have made these and all other commissioners appointed rather than elected.

    Instead, they put it up to a vote of the student body — the same student body that half the council doesn’t trust to vote for its commissioners is now being asked to vote on whether it should continue to have the right to vote for its commissioners. Although it’s purely an advisory vote, the student body should send a message to the council by voting to keep the commissioner positions elected.

    Allowing the A.S. president and a handful of committee members to appoint commissioners gives incredible power to the president to stack the most important council positions with political cronies. Student government will become incredibly corrupt, with powerful positions being granted to influential constituents to reward their loyalty during election season. Although senators sit on the appointments committee and the senate must confirm any appointment, it’s been the general policy of the senate to rubber-stamp the executives’ recommendations. Case in point: the recent controversial appointment of the commissioner of Academic Affairs, about which there was little, if any, discussion by the senate.

    A.S. President Jenn Brown rightly argued against the amendment, noting this possibility of cronyism. Indeed, Brown’s appointment of a faithful constituent to the Academic Affairs post — and the senate’s subsequent rubber-stamp — is the perfect example of the political cronyism she abhors. Having the outgoing commissioner sit in on the interviews for the position, as is suggested by the amendment, wouldn’t have done much good, since outgoing Commissioner of Academic Affairs Halle Beitollahi had been a somewhat lackluster commissioner herself. Imagine the political spoils system that would result from the president appointing not one, but eight important positions, each with a substantial weekly stipend and Price Center office space.

    Supporters of the amendment contend that appointed positions are actually more accountable than elected ones, since it’s easier to fire appointed slackers than it is to impeach elected ones. However, the commissioner should be accountable to the voters, not to the senate. There are certain commissioner positions where a candidate’s qualifications on paper don’t matter nearly as much as the candidate’s ideology. Imagine a commissioner of diversity affairs who was in favor of Ward Connerly’s initiatives, or a faculty-friendly commissioner of academic affairs who thought all rotten cheaters ought to be strung up and flogged. Both would stand a fair chance of coasting through the senate confirmation vote, but they wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning an election.

    The turmoil surrounding this year’s commissioner of academic affairs post is a stunning example of both the need for the constitutional amendment and the best argument against it. The elected commissioner, Beitollahi, didn’t do her job and failed to send student representatives to several important committees. Beitollahi resigned and was replaced by an appointed commissioner, Ernesto Martinez. Martinez has thus far been an effective commissioner, doing a better job in the span of a few weeks than Beitollahi did in the previous six months, which seems to justify the push to make all commissioners appointed.

    But effective as Martinez is, he was appointed without significant debate or discussion by the senate. Any appointment to such a prestigious position requires at least some modicum of public discussion, and the senate’s refusal to do so makes a strong case that, in future appointment hearings, the full senate will approve without question whomever the appointments committee recommends. In addition, some A.S. pundits have characterized the appointment of Martinez, the former chairman of the Student Affirmative Action Committee, as a political favor to the SAAC organizations that supported the Students First! slate last year — an example of the political shenanigans that the amendment’s supporters are trying to avoid.

    The idea of appointing commissioners isn’t a new one. Some A.S. council members had been thinking about turning commissioners into appointed positions since last spring, when the Students First! political machine nearly swept the elections with a few candidates of questionable competence. Originally, the push to change to appointments was based on the desire to break the proverbial back of the political machine by taking away most of its all-campus elected positions. This reasoning is flawed. Slates become even more influential when the power to appoint eight paid positions is given to a handful of officers, rather than to the electorate. A president couldn’t fill a slate with candidates from the narrow constituencies, but she could dangle the much more alluring promise of guaranteed positions for those same candidates. It’s much easier to appoint people than it is to get them elected.

    We’ve managed to survive so far with elected commissioners; the occasional Beitollahi aside, they’ve been reasonably competent. Those pushing for the amendment are, for the most part, well-intentioned. But every appointment confirmation vote is another example of the senate’s unwillingness to override an executive’s appointment decision, and the likelihood of a spoils system developing outweighs any benefits that may be derived from appointing commissioners.

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