Debate over petitions reveals the weaknesses of the A.S. Council

Petitions are funny things. People love to sign them. But voting in the elections they call up is another matter entirely.

For example, even “Koala TV” and Student-Run Television affiliates found gathering more than 2,600 student signatures in five days a snap. Who wouldn’t, when the petition is skillfully framed as a vote for free speech on campus?

The fact is that signing a petition takes little effort and less commitment. Those students who gathered signatures like to brag that more than 90 percent of the students they approached signed, yet gathering signatures is no harder than giving out free food on Library Walk: Ninety percent of students will happily oblige, no questions asked; the other 10 percent are paranoid cynics.

So the signature-gatherers handed out their delicious bites of participatory democracy, and just over the required 10 percent of UCSD undergrads ate it up. It’s not the mind-boggling mandate that some signature-gatherers make it out to be, but it’s something.

But will our attention waver before the special election even comes to pass during the first week of winter quarter? The SRTV debacle effectively captured students’ attention — but it was fleeting. Only a few remain committed to their quest to overturn the A.S. Council’s decision and turn the station back on. Most of these students are SRTV affiliates or “Koala TV” participants left with nothing to do as the station remains off the air.

While their mission is noble, some long-term thinking is necessary. This same crisis erupted last year, sans SRTV turn-off, and last year this paper advocated a careful rewrite of SRTV’s charter. A.S. Commissioner of Student Affairs Maurice Junious’ rewrite of the charter this year showed a sneaky unilateralism that doesn’t fly; the charter must be rewritten to the satisfaction of both SRTV managers and the A.S. Council. Such a peaceful solution will be tricky and will require some compromise; but if the station wants long-term viability and to avoid future switch-offs, it’s crucial.

While it’s at it, the council might want to clarify and amend the portion of its constitution governing petitions, too.

The current rules governing petitions are vague, opening the door to all sorts of challenges that could stall or block the special election. For example, some councilmembers attempted to argue that the signatures were invalid without PID numbers. This is a silly argument, as candidates for council aren’t even required to supply their PID numbers to run, but the point is that the constitution is weak in areas such as this and must be clarified so obstinate members of the A.S. Council, like Commissioner of Student Advocacy Travis Silva, can’t threaten to block petitions on technicalities for fear of their impact.

Thankfully, the council has decided to smother its urge to stall the special election: Sweeten announced during the Nov. 16 meeting that he verified the petition and the special election will indeed occur.

The councilmembers must do everything in their power to promote this special election. To do anything else would mean political suicide for a council already considered by many students to be filled with pampered, stuffy moralists who are completely divorced from the needs and wants of their constituents.

For all its hand wringing and infighting over what constituents want, the A.S. Council handled this petition poorly. Sure, it’s an injury to one’s ego when students beat down the door to protest a decision the council thought was best and then deliver a stack of thousands of signatures calling for their own say.

But, more importantly, the A.S. Council has obsessed over “what students want” throughout this entire debate, and now it’s clear: They want a special election and a direct say in the future of SRTV. Whether students uphold or strike down the A.S. Council’s decision is impossible to say, because no matter how “free speech” crusaders try to spin it, the 2,600 signatures were in support of a special election, not necessarily in favor of striking down the council’s decision.

The election could go either way, but the main mission is to get it out of the way as soon as possible, before students lose interest. Then SRTV and the A.S. Council can sit down and hammer out a revised charter for the station.

The SRTV debate and the roaring success of the signature-gatherers have made one thing clear: The A.S. Council faces a serious legitimacy problem with students. The council’s decision to come down on the side of censoring SRTV certainly didn’t help its image either. If it weren’t for the A.S. Council’s initiation of its shutdown, SRTV might still be on the air — and even if the council’s reasons for the shutdown were as good as gold, that’s all students focus on.

The real disaster here is that the A.S. Council is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. First of all, it is charged with representing a pool of students who, for the most part, didn’t bother to vote for or against it, and councilmembers sailed to hollow victories or more hollow appointments.

Further, when the council makes popular decisions — like keeping SRTV on the air the first time this pornography crisis erupted, or letting this special election go forward given the current circumstances — students simply ignore them. Making unpopular decisions, on the other hand, elicits insults, threats and cries that the council lacks legitimacy.

Only 19.9 percent of students bothered to vote in last April’s student government elections, so when students complain about a lame or illegitimate A.S. Council, it’s a complaint tinged with hypocrisy. Low voting numbers made the council what it is.

If students actually cared came election time, the moralists, brownnosers, nepotists and wannabe administrators that plague the council wouldn’t win easy elections and re-elections. And more importantly, the council would, or at least be able to claim to, represent students.

One could argue that this council was drawn from a pool of lackluster candidates, which may well be true. But it’s moot considering that, regardless, very few students took the initiative to actually vote, and now a much larger pool of students have risen in opposition to the council’s actions vis-à-vis SRTV. The number of students who signed the petition is more than twice the 1,416 students who elected A.S. President Chris Sweeten, for example — and even more than the 2,510 votes Vice President of Academic Affairs Harry Khanna garnered. Khanna ran unopposed.

Do students who didn’t bother to vote in the current council have a right to sign a petition condemning its actions? Insofar as the council affects their lives as UCSD students, yes. But it’s still a mite hypocritical and unfair to councilmembers who are trying to represent a student body that only cares about its missteps.