Anything Could Fly Behind Closed Council Doors

Rebekah Hwang/Guardian

Anyone who has spent time at an A.S. Council meeting is familiar with the routine nature of the council’s weekly deliberations. Barring discussion of some particularly contentious issue (like racist cookouts, for instance), council meetings are, for the most part, free of controversy, consisting primarily of committee appointments, funding allocations, friendly chatter and nitpicky legislative debate — just the kind of thing you’d expect from your typical governing body.

Occasionally, however, councilmembers are faced with an issue they deem to be too sensitive for discussion before members of the public. On two separate occasions this year, a Guardian reporter assigned to cover the weekly A.S. Council meeting was asked to leave the conference room after councilmembers voted to close their meeting to the public. Referred to as “Executive Sessions,” such private meetings are allowed under the council’s Special Rules of Order, and usually take place when councilmembers wish to discuss “matters of personnel, existing or anticipated litigation, license or permit determination, threat to public services or facilities, labor negotiations, investments, contracts or real property negotiations.”

Admittedly, the Guardian editorial board initially thought little of these occurrences, due to the fact that such powers were within the council’s right. But earlier this month, members of the Daily Nexus — UC Santa Barbara’s student-run newspaper — brought to our attention an alarming event that has reshaped our perception of this apparently routine council procedure. On Jan. 27, all members of the public were unexpectedly asked to leave a meeting of the UCSB A.S. Council. The meeting was closed for approximately 90 minutes, after which time councilmembers refused to offer any explanation for the sudden expulsion of reporters, students and other onlookers — stating only that the discussion revolved around “pending litigation.”

Assuming that their council had committed infractions of the Brown, Bagley-Keane, or Gloria Romero Open Meetings Acts — California state laws requiring legislative bodies to disclose basic information regarding the subject of any executive session — editors at the Nexus immediately launched a legal investigation into the situation. What they discovered, however, was that no A.S. Council at any UC campus is subject to any state-mandated disclosure law. Basically, the UCSB council’s scant description of its recent secretive close- door session was acceptable under state law.

What this incident reveals is the extent to which A.S. Councils within the UC system are able to exploit their right to discretionary privacy. Though the student governing bodies at California State University and California Community College campuses are subject to the legal requirements of the Gloria Romero Open Meetings Act and the Brown Act, respectively, our own student leaders are inexplicably exempt from either law, allowing for potential abuses of private meetings to occur.

That’s not to say our own council has regularly carried out shady dealings behind closed doors. During both of the instances when councilmembers voted to enter executive session this year and removed our reporter from their meeting, they provided adequate information as to the content of their private sessions, courteously adhering to California’s disclosure laws on a de facto basis.

As demonstrated by the actions of the UCSB council, however, such courtesy is not always exercised. The specific content of that Jan. 27 meeting still remains a mystery — but probably has to do with a rowdy retreat whose damages were patched in student fees.

To ensure that such abuses of power are avoided in the future, A.S. Councils within the UC System should be made to adhere to state disclosure laws. By reserving the right to hide their proceedings on a whim, councilmembers effectively disinherit the most essential characteristic of any democratic legislative body: transparency. With millions of dollars in student fees in their hands, it would be nice to know that our leaders are always accountable for their actions.

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