Closed SA vote shows lack of transparency

By Northern Star Editorial Board

A dangerous tone has been set in the wake of a recent SA Senate closed meeting.

Senators met Sunday night to decide whether or not to remove SA Vice President Reggie Bates from office — all behind closed doors (The results of the impeachment and charges Bates faced were not available at press time).

SA Speaker Dillon Domke and Timothy Brandner, SA Sergeant at Arms, have informed the Northern Star they do not think the Illinois Open Meetings Act — an act that requires most meetings and all final action of public bodies to be conducted in public — applies to the SA Senate because it is not a public body as defined by the act, and if it were, it is exempt from voting in an open session.

Beyond that, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents the SA Senate from disclosing educational records to the public, Brandner said before the senators went into the closed meeting Sunday.

Domke said the SA Senate will release the results of the vote and the charges after the meeting.

We respectfully disagree with these reasons. Any vote must be conducted in public for the best interests of the SA Senate and the students who have elected SA senators.

After conducting our due diligence, we would like to break down these reasonings and share our thoughts.

The SA Senate is a public body

The Northern Star believes the SA Senate is a public body because it receives funding from and serves in the shared governance process as an advisory body to NIU, which is a state institution.

“’Public body’ includes all legislative, executive, administrative or advisory bodies of the State,” according to the Open Meetings Act.

Most of the SA Senate’s funding comes from NIU through NIU approved student fees. The SA acts as a legislative body in this respect because it has final say on what to do with the funding it receives from a state institution. An example of this decision-making power is the $1,068 it approved in supplemental funding for Black Male Initiative during a Nov. 8 SA Senate meeting.

Final action is not exempt from the Illinois Open Meetings Act

An SA meeting can be exempt from being held in public because of concerns about the privacy or rights of individuals being under the danger or unwarranted invasion in accordance with the Open Meetings Act. Brandner said there are concerns about retaliation against senators for voting a certain way in the vice president’s impeachment.

The Northern Star agrees the SA Senate can talk about anything in a closed meeting that is exempt from an open meeting; however, this exception does not exempt the SA Senate from voting in public.

“A public body may hold closed meetings to consider the following subjects,” according to a provision in the Open Meetings Act under which exceptions fall. The key word here is “consider,” not decide.

The Northern Star does not request the SA Senate stop holding closed meetings for things it has every right to hold closed meetings for. It only asks that votes be conducted in public.

The SA Senate will not violate FERPA if it holds an open vote

Again, the Northern Star is not demanding the SA open closed sessions. The Northern Star only demands a vote be cast publicly. To say the SA Senate will violate FERPA by voting openly on the removal of a public figure from office is to say the SA Senate is violating FERPA every time senators vote publicly.

“FERPA covers only confidential education records maintained by the university,” said Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center. “FERPA does not cover facts that come from a source other than the student’s education records. … If the facts come from any other source, including from the student’s own mouth, those facts are not a matter of FERPA secrecy.”

The Northern Star is not requesting an open vote to observe SA senators in their capacity as students, but in their capacity as publicly elected officials. The same goes for whatever charges, if any, Bates faced.

Closed votes are bad politics

Holding open voting is just a good way to conduct business in a democracy. The NIU students who voted to put their representatives in office deserve to know how their representatives are voting. How else are public officials, who claim to represent students in the shared governance process, supposed to be held accountable?

SA elections are held openly, it meets openly, its members speak openly, it votes openly and it shares its budget openly, but now it wants to close its doors.

It is paramount that those who practice lawmaking also practice transparency.