Why I threw a fit over a closed-door student government meeting

Last Wednesday, for the first time after two years of covering CSU’s student government, I spoke on the floor during a meeting.

I said something along the lines of: “We’re not going to leave; the press will stay here.”

The Associated Students of Colorado State University’s senate is currently in the process of attempting to impeach the student body president. But, they don’t seem to want to tell anyone why they’re trying to impeach him. On Wednesday, they tried to call an “executive session,” in order to discuss the alleged violations without the public – including journalists – present.

My stance prevented ASCSU from going into executive session. As a work around, they read the titles of the violations, omitting evidence that would let us know why he’s being impeached.

Why do I care?

I strongly believe that it is not my place as a journalist to interfere with, nor comment on, the topic or group I cover. But, I couldn’t let this happen for four reasons:

1. The student body deserves to know. I’m not interested in ruining future careers or starting drama with the student government. I actually tell my reporters that it’s our job to cut through the drama to determine what the student body actually needs to know – and the student body deserves to know why their student body president might be impeached.

2. It would set an expectation for the future. If we, as a student press, allow these student representatives to believe they can remove us when a sensitive topic comes up, what does that mean 10 years down the road? It’s likely that a few of us will grow up to be professional journalists, and a few of them will grow up to be politicians. Even on this level, it is extremely important that these students do not think its okay, or legal, to deal with public matters behind closed doors.

3. It would damage relationships between ASCSU and the Collegian. Allowing the senate to go into executive session would severely damage the relationship between ASCSU and the Collegian, as it did in 2014. When ASCSU tried to impeach then Sen. Kwon Yearby in 2014, they called an executive session and actually kicked Collegian reporters out of the room threatening police intervention. The cohort of students who went through that experience were burned on both sides. ASCSU representatives disliked the Collegian, and Collegian reporters disliked ASCSU. I worked for two years as the beat reporter and then as an editor to rebuild relationships between the newspaper and the student government, and I wasn’t about to let something I believe is not only dangerous, but probably illegal, damage that.

4. An executive session in this case, is illegal. I believe, and have been legally advised to stand by it, that ASCSU is in violation of Colorado open records and public meetings law, commonly referred to as sunshine laws. The rest of this piece will address that claim.

How is ASCSU breaking the law?

ASCSU claims that: 1) They are not a public body, and therefore not subject to open meeting and open record laws. 2) If they were, the content of the impeachment is of a personnel matter, which is one exception to allow public meetings to be private.

I believe both of these claims are false.

Under Colorado law, it is clear that ASCSU is a public body, and it would be very difficult for CSU’s General Counsel to argue that they are not. Here’s why:

I’m paraphrasing, but the definition of a state public body in Colorado includes any decision-making body of any governing board of a state institution of higher education.

ASCSU makes rules and delegates funds collected through student fees. It is authorized by Colorado State University, which is a public institution of higher education, to make these decisions.

By law, all meetings of two or more members of any state public body at which public business is discussed or at which any formal action is taken are public meetings.

So, if ASCSU is a public body, which they are based on those statutes, then what about saying they can go into executive session regardless because of this personnel argument?

I disagree with that too.

First, a personnel matter typically has to do with addresses, phone numbers, or otherwise private information, according to the Student Press Law Center. Nothing like that would, to my understanding, be included on a petition for impeachment.

Secondly, the exemption to sunshine law that allows a body to discuss personnel matters privately doesn’t apply to elected officials. Evidence suggests that President Josh Silva is an elected official – he is elected by students, represents the university and manages funds. So, even if there were sensitive personnel issues in the document, it’s still public information.

Also, has ASCSU even complied with the steps they would have to take in order to go into an executive session? Historically, no.

While it’s true that public bodies can have executive sessions, in order to do so, ASCSU would need to provide the specific citation that authorizes it. Last senate session, they didn’t. In 2014, they didn’t.

Then, they are required to take a vote – two-thirds of the body – to do it. In 2014, they didn’t.

There’s a section of state law that specifically notes that meetings that consider the dismissal, demotion or discipline of elected officials are public, unless that person requests an executive session. In 2014, the senator being impeached was against going into executive session and they removed him from the room, a clear violation of this statute.

Lastly, if ASCSU properly followed the rules to have an executive session, they would have had to provide the contents of the discussion after the session to the public. So, even if ASCSU had a legitimate reason to close doors, they still would need to provide the details of impeachment afterwardsAgain, in 2014, they didn’t.

So, what now?

Given my conversations with free press lawyers and after reading through Colorado sunshine law, the Collegian is of the strong opinion that not only is ASCSU not allowed to close meetings to the public, but they’ve also broken laws governing executive sessions in the past.

To be fair, ASCSU is receiving legal advice from the General Counsel of Colorado State University that Colorado sunshine laws do not apply to them. And, from my conversations, it seems as though student representatives are fearful of losing their jobs or being expelled if they discuss the impeachment openly — I’m not sure where these fears come from, but I believe them to be unwarranted.

I urge ASCSU to change their impeachment procedures through constitutional amendment to comply with the law. If they cannot due to the University’s legal advice, I urge them to both support and work with the Collegian to resolve what appears to be an unresolved legal issue in Colorado.

Impeachments, or talks of impeachments, come up almost every year in student government. Regardless if this body is holding representatives accountable or playing politics, they should at least play by the rules.

Collegian Editor-in-Chief Erin Douglas and the Collegian Editorial Board can be reached at editor@collegian.com or on Twitter @erinmdouglas23. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s