With the Student Assembly elections scheduled to take place Thursday, April 2, The Flat Hat reviewed key moments and pieces of legislation from SA in the past session. With special attention paid to incumbent candidates and bills discussed, these were some of the most important happenings from the 327th Student Assembly.
The Subsidized Emergency Contraception Act
During the Oct. 1, 2019 SA meeting, Sens. Eugene Lee ’22, Liam Watson ’20 and Joshua Panganiban ’20 were the only three senators to abstain on The Subsidized Emergency Contraception Act, which was sponsored by Sens. Jahnavi Prabhala ‘22 and Maggie Wells ‘21. The meeting brought several students for public comment both for and against the bill.
The legislation sought to “affirm the community and the Health Center’s commitment to supporting students’ health resources.” Accordingly, the bill allocated $3,000 from the SA reserves to help offset the cost of Levonorgestrel, an emergency contraceptive otherwise known as Plan B, which can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. The bill was intended to help students with economic barriers to obtaining the contraceptive, reducing its cost to $5 per dose.
Despite the potential for public opposition, Prabhala said that the bill was necessary for students.
“As we worked on the bill and communicated with different members on campus, we were aware that we would face some public opposition,” Prabhala said in an email. “… I think that it is always good to hear these disagreeing perspectives because it helps us strengthen our own initiatives. Having talked to many different groups on campus, we knew that this was an initiative that many students expressed not only a want, but a need for.”
Some students, such as Tribe for Life Member Anne Whelan ’21, did not share Prabhala’s perspective. In the meeting’s public comment segment, Whelan said that she was against the bill on religious grounds.
“There are plenty of students here who oppose this on moral and religious grounds.” Whelan said. “If Student Assembly wants to represent all students, forcing us to pay for something that violates our religious and moral beliefs and ends an innocent human life, it is a complete failure of this supposed representation.”
Someone You Know Vice President Katherine Yenzer ’21 argued that the bill would have a positive impact on sexual assault survivors on campus.
“We fervently believe that in order for our campus to be a safe and accepting place for survivors, we must increase access to Plan B,” Yenzer said.
Of the three senators to abstain, Lee is the only senator running for reelection. Lee said while he did support the Emergency Contraceptive Act, he voted to abstain on the bill due to the public comments.
“Given that I came into Senate campaigning to represent ALL students of the class of 2023, I did not feel comfortable voting an absolute ‘yes’ on a bill that 1) I did not have the chance nor given the time to look over and 2) held differing public opinions on what was deemed as some as a controversial bill,” Lee said in an email. “I supported the contents of the Emergency Contraceptive Act but voted to abstain in respect of the public comments.”
Who sponsored what bills?
Before announcing his run for SA President, Senate Chair Anthony Joseph ‘21 sponsored or co-sponsored the most bills in the 327th assembly, totaling to 12 bills and resolutions. Joseph also officially supported four other measures, which are not included in the above graph. According to Joseph, those numbers demonstrate large roles in the bills he sponsored and co-sponsored.
Joseph said he also mentored some younger, inexperienced senators, which helped drive up his numbers.
“The only difference this year is that some of the bills I have sponsored as Chair have been pilots for new senators to help guide them through our process,” Joseph said in an email.
Joseph, who was described by his running mate to be a genius on SA code, explained the differences between being a sponsor, co-sponsor and supporter.
“Being the sponsor of the bill basically makes that senator the leader of that bill,” Joseph said. “That senator needs to gather all the information, write the bill, and execute the bill if it is passed. Co-sponsors play more of a supporting role and help coordinate the sponsor’s efforts. Supporting a bill just expresses that you care for that bill and does not come with any responsibilities.”
Finance Chair Meghana Boojala ‘22 was tied for the second most active senator with Patrick Salsburg ’21. They each had eight bills and resolutions bearing their names.
“The beauty of SA is that I have the ability to pursue my beliefs and passions in many ways,” Boojala said in an email. “In addition to finance reform, my colleagues informed me of several other issues on campus. Their initiative led me to support more bills.”
Vasquez, who is currently running on Joseph’s ticket as the vice presidential nominee, sponsored or co-sponsored six bills and resolutions, ultimately coming in third. At the bottom of the list are Sens. Madison Hubbard ’23 and Maheen Saeed ’23 as well as Class of 2023 President Conor Sokolowsky ’23. However, since class of 2023 representatives were elected at the beginning of the academic year in September rather than last spring when the other senators were elected, they had less time to write and sponsor acts.
Hubbard and Saeed sponsored the Divest From Fossil Fuels resolution. Hubbard, Saeed and Sokolowsky all co-sponsored the Cypher Award Act. Sokolowsky sponsored the fewest bills or resolutions.
The Sustainability Climate Action Resolution and The Divest from Fossil Fuels Resolution
Few other resolutions in the 327th session sparked as much debate as The Sustainability Climate Action Resolution and The Divest from Fossil Fuels Resolution. Both resolutions were aimed at asserting the College’s stance on climate change and fossil fuels.
SCAR aimed to increase sustainability, decrease energy usage and encourage the community to find ways to be more environmentally friendly. The Divest from Fossil Fuels Resolution was aimed at the College’s Board of Visitors to divest, or in this case eliminate, investments made into companies and funds with ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Some senators saw the language of the divestment as too harsh, looking for a more moderate resolution that would gain the approval of the Board of Visitors. This led to the word “immediately” being struck from the measure after a 15-8 vote in favor. Others wanted to combine the two bills, a measure that was ultimately struck down.
“The move to combine the two bills was hotly contested, not supported by one of the bill’s authors and ultimately not carried through by the majority of the senate,” Lee said.
Lee voted to abstain from the divestment because he said that there was a lack of information and sources in regard to the bill.
“The bill calls upon the administration to divest from fossil fuels — which I wholeheartedly support — but does not offer alternatives and a follow-up action report regarding administrative accountability,” Lee said.
The bill includes 25 footnotes to various news articles, Freedom of Information Act requests from senators and references to the College’s own sustainability goals and messaging. It also requests that the Board of Visitors commit to transparency regarding the College’s investments.
Sen. Zie Medrano ’20 unsuccessfully tried a motion to table the vote on the divestment. The debate over these bills went on for long enough that Prabhala tried for a motion to extend the debate, which also failed. Both the SCAR and Divest from Fossil Fuels Resolution passed with more than 20 votes in favor of each.
Visualizing the voting record of all incumbent candidates
Lee was the only incumbent candidate to never vote against a bill last year. Of the 43 possible votes , Lee voted “yes” 41 times.
“The notion that I have to vote ‘no’ at least once to redeem myself to my constituents in order to honestly represent them is completely ridiculous … I have yet to confront a bill that has deeply conflicted with my personal values, as I look for practicality and the benefits a bill has towards the students before anything else,” Lee said in an email.
Class of 2022 President Suhas Suddala ‘22, Sen. Vicky Morales ‘22 and Salsburg all were recorded as having voted against the most measures.
“I still feel strongly about not giving into herd mentality and voting for what you believe in,” Suddala said in an email. “That’s what we were elected for.”
Vasquez led the pack with Class of 2021 President Aria Austin ’21 and Boojala for the most votes for various resolutions.
“People should not be afraid of speaking their opinions, or being the only “no” in the room … A simple “yes” or “no” can cause other SA members of the student body to make assumptions about a voting member’s views,” Boojala said.
Vasquez explained his voting pattern by saying that he views the bills one at a time. “It just depends on the bill. A lot of times my heart will be in a bill and I will just feel things very heavily … then the other thing is I get a lot of feedback,” he said.
Vasquez echoed Suddala’s sentiments on herd mentality.
“We have actively been working on avoiding group think,” Vasquez said. “That’s something that Ellie Thomas has actually been working on.”
SA Vice President Ellie Thomas ‘20 said that she has tried to make senators feel comfortable when speaking their minds.
“The most concrete thing that I have tried to do is to set a tone of respect in meetings; no one should be made to feel that their ideas are lesser or that people will judge their character when speaking their minds,” Thomas said in an email. “One tangible step that we have taken as a body is refraining from snapping or vocally supporting speakers through maintaining decorum in meetings.”
Thomas outlined the process most bills and resolutions go through before being voted on by the entire senate.
“Senate bills are introduced on a Tuesday, discussed for five hours in committees on the following Sunday, edited accordingly by the sponsors, and discussed at length the following Tuesday,” Thomas said in an email. “Through thorough critique, debate, and discussion, there is ample opportunity for bills to be edited and improved before they are voted on in a meeting. Most disagreements are resolved in advance of Senate meetings, and this year’s Senate has done an incredible job of engaging in committees constructively,” Thomas said.
Thomas went on to highlight how this process, which encourages intense debate and critique in committees, has resulted in more consensus among senators.
“Because of all of this process, by the Tuesday of the vote, most Senators have clarity regarding their vote,” Thomas said.
Sustainability and Student Dinners Act
In terms of split votes, few bills in the 327th assembly came close to the Sustainability and Student Dinners Act sponsored by Hubbard, Panganiban and officially supported by the Office of Sustainability. The final vote tally was nine votes against, nine votes in favor and three abstentions. It did not pass.
The bill was designed to allocate $400 in funding for a catered dinner and to conduct a survey on organizations whose main goals did not include sustainability.
Austin , Joseph and Saeed cast the three abstentions. Vasquez, Salsburg , Hubbard and Lee all voted in favor. Meanwhile, Suddala, Boojala, Morales, Sokolowsky and Sen. Abby Varrichio ‘23 all voted against the bill.
Hubbard, who sponsored the bill, said that the bill ultimately failed because it wasn’t the right step forward at the time.
“In the end, the bill did not provide an initial widespread collection method of opinions and the Senate thought the bill would be an effective second step in the course of action to improve overall campus sustainability,” Hubbard said in an email.
Potential discrepancies between senators and SA records
During the April 23, 2019 SA meeting, senators voted to confirm cabinet and review board members. Suddala is recorded in the official voting tabulation released by SA as having voted against confirming Secretary of Public Affairs Anna Fridely ‘20, Secretary of Sustainability Chitra Kokkirala ’20 and Election Commission Chair Hank Hermans ‘22. In every case, Suddala was recorded as the lone no vote.
Suddala said there was a different story beyond the official voting record.
“I do recall being against an appointee at the beginning of the discussion because of some constituents came up to me earlier … But after I brought up those points, other senators clarified/debunked them and I’m sure I voted yes,” Suddala said in an email.
According to Suddala, the discrepency could have emerged because of faulty SA record-keeping.
“I don’t fully remember because it was so long ago, but I think the records might be faulty,” Suddala said. “I have been talking to our secretary and we both agree that it probably was a typo.”
Suddala raised the point that SA has historically struggled with transparency and accountability. Boojala has been critical of SA’s lack of transparency and financial record.
“The student body is not aware of a lot of the work that SA does, and that is an issue that we have to take seriously,” Boojala said.
Some senators point to the poor state of the SA website as both evidence to the point and a roadblock to transparency. This problem brought about a bill two years ago during the 325th Student Assembly named The Website Modernization Act, which has been passed but is still in the process of being implemented. Currently spearheaded by Sens. Henry Philpott ‘22 and Vasquez, the bill aims to make the SA website more accessible and easier to navigate.
“Our website is so outdated and it’s just one of those things that slips through the cracks … it’s just one of those things that over time we just keep forgetting to be proactive about.” Vasquez said. “It’s on Student Assembly to work on kind of distributing that information out there. But I also understand it’s a hard thing to say, like, how are you going to, like, post flyers being like ‘we’re not evil.’”
Hubbard listed improving the transparency of SA and the administration as her first bullet point in her campaign statement on the SA website. Varrichio also called for increased transparency in her campaign.
“I believe that SA is constantly improving our transparency so there is always more work to be done. … I think education about what SA can and cannot do would be a wonderful start to vastly increase our transparency,” Hubbard said.
Joseph said that his record is not immune to human error either.
“There’s been a few instances of the secretary accidentally not marking a senator and could very well explain why I am unmarked,” Joseph said.
Suddala encourages the College community to attend SA meetings and read the meeting minutes to get the full context behind votes.
“Something that is important to note is that there is a lot of background that you can miss from just looking at yes, no, and abstain,” Suddala said in an email. “The actual meetings and meeting minutes provide great context.”
Methods: The Flat Hat drew data from the official minutes and voting tabulations published by the College’s Student Assembly after each meeting. Weekly SA articles released by the Flat Hat and the SA website provided background information.
Correction: Update attributing a vote to remove the word “immediately” to language in The Divest from Fossil Fuels Resolution instead of The Sustainability Climate Action Resolution. Updated April 1, 2020.