Michigan Student Assembly President Abhishek Mahanti said the assembly’s current practice of nominating and appointing representatives to the Department of Public Safety Oversight Committee will soon be dropped.
The move comes a little more than a week after independent lawyers quoted in a Michigan Daily article called into question the legality of the nomination process.
Mahanti said the assembly will create a resolution in the coming weeks to revise the MSA Compiled Code, which will add an election each semester for student representatives to the Oversight Committee.
“We, as an executive board, realize our mistake in not taking a closer look at this Oversight Committee issue,” Mahanti wrote in an e-mail interview. “We’ve been proactive in using this opportunity to learn from our mistake in regards to our relationship with General Counsel and to re-prioritize and strengthen our Campus Safety Commission.”
Officials from MSA have come under fire lately on two fronts with regard to the DPS Oversight Committee — a body that was formed in 1992 to meet state law and act as a check on DPS, which was established that same year.
First, an article published in the Nov. 16 edition of the Daily outlined MSA’s election process for student representatives to the committee — a process that independent lawyers said may violate state law.
Then it came to light that MSA officials had refused to meet with a University professor who was concerned about the legality of election processes used to select students, faculty and staff to serve on the committee. MSA officials defended themselves by saying they opted not to meet with Prof. Douglas Smith after consulting with the University’s Office of General Counsel, which advised not to talk to him.
After learning about the situation at a Nov. 17 MSA meeting, MSA Public Health Rep. Hamdan Yousuf cautioned MSA’s executive board from “becoming just an arm of the administration,” according to a Nov. 18 Daily article.
The main concerns about the DPS Oversight Committee involve the election processes used to select representatives to serve on the body, which is comprised of two faculty, two staff and two student representatives. Those representatives then make recommendations regarding grievances filed against the campus police.
But widespread negligence of internal bylaws and state laws today has recently raised concerns over how effectively the body can handle that responsibility.
Though a Michigan statute states that student representatives to the DPS Oversight Committee must be “nominated and elected” by the student body, MSA has, in recent years, appointed student representatives to fill the positions without a student-wide election.
In an MSA meeting Nov. 3, the assembly voted to approve two new student representatives to the committee: LSA junior Hemant Chaparala and Engineering sophomore Prithvi Murthy.
In a special report earlier this month, the Daily quoted several lawyers who said that nomination process appears to violate Michigan’s Public Act 120 of 1990, which states, “The committee shall be comprised of individuals nominated and elected by the faculty, students, and staff of the institution.”
While a nomination process is used today, interviews with former MSA officials from the last two decades reveal that MSA used to put DPS Oversight Committee candidates on ballots in student body-wide MSA elections.
According to the DPS Oversight Committee’s bylaws, students, faculty and staff members all have the right to vote for their own representative. But sometime in 2000, that right was waived for students when MSA began appointing representatives to the committee — dropping the student-wide election process.
University alum Brian Kight served as an MSA representative from 1990 to 1994. When the DPS Oversight Committee was formed in 1992, Kight wrote a supplemental document to the MSA election code that explained the procedures for electing students to the committee.
The document stated that two student representatives and one alternative would be elected to the committee in a student body-wide election. The alternate was to fill any vacancies that might occur throughout the year, and the candidates would be placed on the MSA winter election ballot.
Kight — who was chair of the MSA Rules and Elections Committee at the time — said MSA created the supplement to make sure student representatives on the committee would in fact be elected by the students, and not appointed by the administration.
“We were worried that the University administration would hold its own elections independent of MSA, and we were worried that that would set a bad precedent that student government would lose its autonomy if that happened,” Kight said.
Kight also explained that MSA and student groups protested against the deputization of campus police officers because they were concerned officers carrying guns could potentially shoot students.
Despite the controversy, the University Board of Regents voted to approve the formation of DPS in a restricted access meeting where protesters could not disrupt proceedings.
Kight said MSA was torn on how to handle the situation — with one party wanting to oppose the police and the majority of assembly members desiring to support them as long as they listened to students’ concerns.
That’s when Kight drafted the Supplemental Election Code that was an additional chapter of the MSA Compiled Code — the constitution that outlines MSA rules and procedures.
Kight said he wrote the new provisions because there was some concern on how MSA would legally appoint the representatives.
For other University committees with student representation, MSA’s Campus Governance Committee nominated candidates, and the assembly voted to approve them — a process similar to the one used today to put representatives on the oversight committee. But because of the state law, MSA officials believed this process wouldn’t suffice.
“Looking at Public Act 120, it said ‘nominated and elected’ so we determined that these positions had to be elected — not appointed through the normal Campus Governance Committee appointment process,” Kight said.
Because the law does not state how vacancies are to be filled, Kight inserted a provision that called for an alternate to also be elected. The alternate would serve a one-year term and fill any vacancies that arose during the year.
Today, MSA does not appoint alternates. As reported in the Nov. 16 Daily report, the lack of alternates presented a problem this year, when both student representatives had graduated by May, and the committee had no student representation for six months.
According to Kight, the first MSA elections following the provisions in 1992 were successful. Candidates were placed on MSA’s paper ballot, and Kight recalls about six students running for the position.
“It was definitely competitive,” he said.
Elected student representatives to the Oversight Committee could be traced back to 1999 — in a Daily article that announced the winners of the two positions.
According to Matt Nolan, MSA president from 2001 to 2002, there was no student body-wide election in 2000. Nolan added that he was not aware that the representatives had been elected in prior years.
University alum Hideki Tsutsumi, who served as MSA president from 2000 to 2001, could not be reached for comment.
Additionally, the Supplemental Election Code, or any similar document, is no longer part of the MSA Compiled Code. Kight said he thinks it disappeared at some point when MSA revised the Compiled Code.
The Compiled Code is revised about once a month. Mahanti and 2008-2009 MSA President Sabrina Shingwani said they had not heard of the Supplemental Election Code.
Mahanti said election procedures for the DPS Oversight Committee are not outlined in MSA’s current Election Code.
Though Mahanti told the Daily this month that it would be difficult to organize a student body-wide election for the Oversight Committee representatives, Kight said online voting should make it easy and cited the printing costs and logistical challenges of coordinating paper ballots he dealt with as a representative nearly 20 years ago.
When Public Act 120 was written, Kight said there was a general consensus that the students would nominate and elect their peers to the committee. He added the way MSA currently handles the election process by appointing representatives is “absolutely in violation of the state statue.”
“I think the statue is very clear that these individuals have to be nominated and elected by the students,” he said. “When it says that, it doesn’t mean the representative body of the students. It means the students.”
Kight said he thinks MSA didn’t do a good job of promoting the position over the years and members had a hard time finding candidates.
“At some point they probably decided, ‘OK we’ll appoint these positions just like we appoint people to other committees,’ and they weren’t really paying attention to the fact that Public Act 120 of 1990 requires an election,” he said.
In addition to MSA’s missteps regarding the DPS Oversight Committee, the University’s administration also never acted over the last decade on the possibly illegal nomination process MSA has been using.
In an interview this month, Provost Teresa Sullivan said she did not know much about the issue and suggested to talk to Mahanti.
“I’m more of an interested observer on this than an active ingredient,” Sullivan said.
At the University Board of Regents November meeting, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the University strongly believes it is meeting the requirements of the law both in writing and in practice.
Kight said he thinks University administrators have always been “ambivalent” about the committee and that they never paid any attention to the body because they felt DPS could handle grievances on its own.
“I really think the University administration has never been a big fan of the Oversight Committee and has kind of downplayed it, ignored it or at least they haven’t really been concerned about it,” Kight said.