Two student seats on the University’s Department of Safety Oversight Committee are up for grabs this semester. But only one student, LSA junior Ellen Steele, is slated to run for the elected position.
Since she’s uncontested, Steele is expected to win one of the student spots. However, if another student isn’t elected to the twin position by the end of the semester, the committee will be in violation of state law.
The DPS Oversight Committee is an advisory group that makes recommendations to the administration about grievances filed against DPS officers. State law mandates that the committee consist of two students, two University faculty members and two University staff members, who are nominated and elected by their representative groups.
The election system was created after independent lawyers told The Michigan Daily in fall 2009 that members of the committee weren’t being elected in accordance with Michigan statute Public Act 120 of 1990 — the act that created the committee. In the past, students were appointed to the committee by the Michigan Student Assembly but, the student members are now elected during student government elections, which are taking place today and tomorrow.
Steele said her experience as a board member of the University’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and her familiarity with student rights issues gives her a fresh perspective and qualifies her for the position.
“I’m really passionate about civil liberties and social justice, and I want to bring that perspective to the DPS Oversight Committee to protect the rights of students and anyone associated with the University,” Steele said.
If faced with a topic she is unfamiliar with, Steele said her interest in law would help her form an educated opinion on the subject.
“I have a natural curiosity about these legal issues, so if there is anything that comes to the table that I don’t feel I’m aware about or that I’m not qualified to have an opinion about, then I will do the research to make an informed opinion,” Steele said.
LSA senior Rebecca Egler and LSA sophomore Hari Vutukuru currently hold the student spots on the committee. However, at the end of the semester, Vutukuru’s term will expire and Egler — whose term officially ends in the fall — will be stepping down since she’s graduating this spring. Therefore, the committee will only have one student member come May, if Steele is elected, and will be in violation of state law.
To remedy this problem, MSA rules chair Kyle Summers said write-in candidates could potentially fill the empty seat. He added that if the seat isn’t filled in this week’s election, it would be open for re-election in the fall.
However, MSA Student General Counsel Timothy Bekkers wrote in an e-mail interview that he was concerned about the legitimacy of write-in candidates.
“One of the problems with write-in candidates, however, is that many times they’re not actually supported by the actual individual, so that person may not actually want to serve even if he/she is the runner-up from write-in ballots,” Bekkers wrote.
He added that he thinks the new system, in which only elected students can hold a position on the committee, is problematic because there isn’t enough student interest in the committee to ensure there are enough candidates every semester.
Steele said if she’s elected, she would keep students’ opinions in mind when considering grievances brought before the committee. She added that she wouldn’t propose any major changes to the committee because it only operates in an advisory role.
During her involvement in the ACLU, Steele founded the Civil Liberties Peer Educator Program — which informs students about proper conduct when encountering the police — participated in MSA’s Open Housing campaign to instate gender-neutral housing in University residence halls and advocated to reform the University’s trespass policy. The trespass policy has been widely criticized recently for its review and expiration components, though Suellyn Scarnecchia, the University’s vice president and general counsel, proposed alterations to the policy earlier this month.
Steele said she will continue working for the ACLU and is currently running unopposed for chair of the University’s chapter. She added that she would keep her role as member of the ACLU distinct from her position on the DPS Oversight Committee.
“I would view my roles on the ACLU and DPS Oversight Committee as separate, so my advocacy to changes to the trespass policy will be done as part of the ACLU and not necessarily as part of the DPS Oversight Committee,” Steele said.