MSA holds first election for DPS Oversight Cmte. in more than a decade

By Stephanie Steinberg, Daily News Editor
Published March 25, 2010

LSA freshmen Ellie Howe and Hari Vutukuru have become the first two students to be elected to the Department of Public Safety Oversight Committee in more than a decade, according to Michigan Student Assembly election results published late Thursday night.

Their election comes after MSA revamped its election procedure for student representatives to the oversight body following an article in The Michigan Daily that quoted independent lawyers saying that the assembly's previous election process appeared to violate state law.

The two candidates who were elected — Howe from the Defend Affirmative Action Party and Vutukuru from the Michigan Vision Party — were the only two in the running. LSA senior Deandre Hicks, from DAAP, was originally on the ballot but withdrew his candidacy Wednesday morning.

During this year’s spring MSA elections, students at the University could vote for two students to serve as representatives on the DPS Oversight Committee — a committee with student, staff and faculty members who address citizens’ grievances concerning the campus police. In order for the University to have a campus police force, a Michigan state statute mandates the University to have an oversight committee for the campus police.

Since 1999, MSA has appointed students to serve on the committee. But independent lawyers told the Daily last November that MSA was violating the statute because it calls for the student representatives to be elected to the committee — not appointed.

After MSA looked into the matter, representatives decided that the assembly was not following the statute and that election procedures needed to be revised.

Outgoing MSA President Abhishek Mahanti co-authored a proposal to place student candidates wanting to serve on the committee on ballots in the campus-wide elections that take place in March and November. In a Dec. 9, 2009 Daily article, Mahanti said the majority of the assembly was in support of the resolution.

“It’s nice that the entire assembly got behind (the issue) to figure out what can be done to go forward,” Mahanti told the Daily at the time. “It was a really good collaborative effort.”

Howe and Vutukuru said before the election results were published that they were in favor of the change in election procedures.

“I really believe in the democratic process and making that prevalent in respect to student leadership,” Howe said. “I think when you have a group in power appointing more and more representation it doesn’t lead to true representation and focus on students.”

She added that elected representatives are more productive and attentive to addressing students' concerns than appointed representatives.

“When you have a group of students that directly are asking you to represent them and to work for them, you are much more accountable to those who elected you,” she said.

In an e-mail interview, Vutukuru expressed a similar opinion and wrote that he supported the change to an electoral process.

“I think it’s beneficial that the students understand who exactly is representing them when it comes to the DPS Oversight Committee,” Vutukuru wrote. “It allows for more accountability and transparency within the system.”

Vutukuru wrote that he wants to serve on the committee to improve the relationship between students and the campus police.

“Right now I feel as if there’s a mindset that students don’t really appreciate DPS,” Vutukuru wrote. “I feel that when a student sees a DPS officer they feel like ‘OK, here comes another one.’ I want students to feel some admiration for DPS officers, and at the same time I want DPS officers to understand students and their rights.”

Howe said she thinks there is a lack of communication between DPS and students. To solve this problem, she said she wants to hold open forums where students can talk about their safety concerns. She also plans to work with students in University organizations like SAPAC and the Spectrum Center.

“I would like to talk to them a lot about hate crimes they’ve heard of and experienced and try to individualize the approach that DPS takes towards students to make it a more efficient and personal service here,” she said.

In an interview on Wednesday, Hicks said he was not running for the position and said he was not aware that his name was still on the ballot.

Though previously planning to run, Hicks said he had a “hectic schedule” because he interns with Congressmen John Dingell (D–Mich.) 40 hours each week and attends class.

Hicks said he thought MSA representatives knew he was not planning to run anymore.

When Michael Benson, chair of the MSA Rules and Elections Committee, was asked about the matter, Benson said he was “confused” and didn’t know that Hicks wanted to retract his candidacy.

“His name is on the ballot,” Benson said. “As far as I’m aware, we never received notice from him saying he wanted to be taken off."

In an interview Thursday night, MSA Election Chair Sagar Despande said that Hicks officially withdrew at 9:51 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Though Hicks is not running, students could still vote for him on the ballot. Despande said Hicks would not take office if he is elected.

But on Wednesday Hicks said he would probably accept the position if elected. However, he admitted that he did not know what his responsibilities on the committee would be or the basic function of the committee.

“As far of the details, I’m not quite sure,” he said.