The ins and outs of SGA this election season

Campus News Feature

Brooke J. Freundschuh, Managing Editor

Editorial Disclaimer: Former chairwoman Audrey Johnson and former senators Ellen McDonald and Brady Jordan hold positions in UNA student media. While some sources for this article requested anonymity, the three aforementioned students are not quoted or used as sources for this article, and their opinions did not factor into this report. The Flor-Ala is dedicated to eliminating internal biases and maintaining integrity and transparency with its readers.

The Student Government Association at The University of North Alabama has faced a trying year, which began with the impeachment hearings for President Jake Statom after he originally refused to allow a post for pride month on the SGA Instagram account and posted anti-LGBTQ+ statements on his personal Instagram and Twitter pages, which he had used as a campaign platform. After a close 16-10 majority vote favoring impeachment, Statom kept his position by one vote short of a two-thirds majority of the senate. 

As the year has progressed, many senators have resigned. Two senators, Chairman and former Vice President, Carson Brite, and senator Colby Johnson have been removed from senate, and several students have gained interest in and joined SGA along the way. Now, with elections approaching for the 2022-2023 school year, SGA has adopted a new elected system, which will change the way both the executive and legislative branches are selected.

SGA recently released their 2021-2022 SGA report with the slogan “striving to be proactive and transparent.” This report, which is available online, highlights the goals and achievements of the current administration. The goals outlined in this report include fostering a more inclusive environment, increasing state funding from the Education Trust Fund, being proactive in recruitment and availability to help where needed and to be more transparent by making contact information of senators and records public, as well as making meetings available to students by broadcasting them on social media. Statom and Vice President Kayla Walton affirm that these goals are being accomplished. 

“All the goals we came in with, we’ve accomplished most of them. My platform, it was to increase engagement on three different levels: at the university level, at the city and Shoals area level and at the state level,” Statom said. “Obviously at the first level, is engaging with the students, and although we’ve had a lot of things happen this year, we’ve seen the interest in SGA grow more than it’s been since I’ve been involved in SGA.” 

At the local level, Statom has set in stone a project that was started by former SGA president, Tate Gooch, the City Council Liaison Program, which allows students to attend city council meetings and report back to the senate on topics discussed.  

UNA’s goal on a state level is to continue advocating for more funding. Feb. 24 is Higher Education Day, an event that is held at the State Capitol every year. SGA Treasurer Ethan Dempsey says that he is “pursuing more equitable funding.” Last week Statom placed phone calls to ten state legislators to invite them to lunch on Feb. 24. He also states that he attended a dinner with state legislators last November that he feels went successfully. The Legislative Affairs committee of SGA is currently tasked with preparing for Higher Ed Day as well. 

Various committees within the senate are working on other projects to benefit students. Last week, the Student Welfare committee distributed free at-home COVID-19 test kits to students. The Budget Oversight committee is working to allocate funding across campus. Walton takes pride in the fact that SGA has allocated over $67,000 to student organizations since May 2021. 

Another accomplishment of the SGA is the endowed scholarship that was created by a past administration a decade ago. In the last ten years, $10,978 have been awarded to students outside of SGA who exhibit leadership qualities and involvement as well as meet a GPA requirement. This year, $2,850 will be allocated to students for the 2022-2023 school year. 

The SGA report also states that 18 pieces of legislation have been passed this school year. These include amendments to the code of laws to require presidential and vice presidential candidates to run on a joint ticket, to require vice presidential candidates to have served two semesters on SGA prior to running, to revise the dress code in senate, to remove the requirement of signatures for candidates and allocation of funds for things such as a pep bus to the UNA vs. Mississippi State men’s basketball game.

“We’ve had legislation on the floor just about every week, which is something that’s not said for every year,” Walton said. 

Several resolutions have been passed to recognize UNA sports teams, to honor and recognize faculty, to advocate to have student members on university task forces and one to honor and support the family of Sergeant Nick Risner who passed away in the line of duty last October.  

In my opinion, our biggest accomplishment is the amount of legislation that we have passed this year so far,” said Amber Sandvig, SGA senator and chairwoman of the Academic Affairs committee, when asked about progress made so far this year.

Despite these accomplishments, the senate looks different than it did at the beginning of the year. Since the impeachment vote many senators have resigned for various reasons or been removed. Senators Katherine Alfaro, Chairman Carson Brite, Mackenzie Bullard, Rachel Ford, Chairwoman Audrey Johnson, Colby Johnson, Brady Jordan, Ellen McDonald and Caroline Vance are no longer serving on SGA. Communications director Maeve Eubanks also resigned.

Although two senators have since graduated and a few have resigned for reasons such as conflicting class schedules, there is still tension following the impeachment vote that has led to division amongst SGA.

Former Chairman Carson Brite, who served as Vice President in the 2020-2021 school year, was removed from SGA due to absences. According to the current code of laws, senators are allowed three absences from senate sessions. Because Brite was the chairman of the Student Welfare Committee, he also had to attend chair and committee meetings. Upon the third absence, it becomes grounds for dismissal. 

Brite states that he was in bed on a Friday or Saturday night over Christmas break when he received an email from Secretary Javia Warner stating that because of his three absences he was being excused from SGA. He states that he did miss two chair’s meetings and one senate session.

“I’m not denying that I missed that third meeting, but I missed the fewest amount of meetings of any chairman, except for Amber [Sandvig], but she was installed later. They enforced that rule against me, but didn’t enforce it against anyone else, and it’s all because of Kayla [Walton’s] warped perception of her influence and standing,” Brite said.

According to the current code of laws, absences can be excused or unexcused by the Executive Council. Brite was dismissed for having three unexcused absences, as opposed to others whose absences were excused. Brite believes that Statom and Walton’s administration relies too heavily on these written rules instead of focussing on students, both within and outside of their organization. He stated that the morale of the senate has been killed, and expresses little hope for an improvement under the current administration. He expresses dismay with being dismissed via email without receiving any warning prior to his dismissal. He has been a part of SGA for all four years of his college education and has worked with Walton since the beginning. 

“I was her Vice President. I’ve been in that role. I know the ins and outs of the position well, and I just think that especially considering the year that SGA has had, if you have senators like me and so many others that have left or been kicked out, who do you want in your organization if you’re not going to have the people who know what they’re talking about and have been there the longest?” Brite said.

Brite believes that his dismissal, as well as the subsequent dismissal of Senator Colby Johnson for the same reason, is tied to the impeachment vote. According to the document obtained by the Flor-Ala stating which senators voted for and against impeachment, all of the senators who have been dismissed or resigned who voted on impeachment (some abstained from voting or were otherwise absent for the session) voted in favor of Jake’s removal. All of these senators also signed the request for Statom to resign last June.

“Show me one person that was for Jake, that was against impeachment that has been given this kind of treatment,” Brite said. “I guarantee that this is just systemic pattern revenge against everybody that had the courage to say that it isn’t okay what he did.”

Another senator who has since resigned and requested anonymity for this article stated, “The results of the vote did slightly impact my resignation. I thought I would see how long I could continue, but all of the drama surrounding it was exhausting.” However, they clarify that they do not feel they were mistreated or treated unfairly. 

“After the vote, there was some tension in the room. I don’t think we really felt like a team since the scandal, and we were especially divided after the vote. In my opinion, the leadership dynamic is very different from the SGA I started on. Jake Statom often made mistakes or did not remember correct protocols when speaking to the group or about procedures. Vice President Walton would correct them. The room was just constantly filled with tension, or at least that’s how it felt to me,” They said. “I don’t believe SGA has a super positive impact on the student body. I believe it promotes the division between students. SGA created somewhat of a polarizing environment amongst students and became a heavy topic at the beginning of the fall semester and during the summer when the scandal occurred.”

As for productivity, Brite and the anonymous former senator both feel that the senate is lacking this year. 

“I’m more concerned with the lack of things going on,” Brite said. “There’s no drive, there’s no goal, there’s no ambition. At this point, I think it’s a social club and it’s an opportunity for people who want something from UNA when they graduate. They want something from university executives, they want recommendations, they want to get hired. It’s just an opportunity for them to rub elbows with the big people.” 

“I’m sure we passed several bills, but nothing really comes to mind when I try and recall what we achieved,” the anonymous source said. “What I remember is us setting up tables for students and causes like mental health.”

Former senator Rachel Ford states that she resigned because she did not have enough time to dedicate her full potential to SGA. 

I wasn’t going to be able to put a lot of time into it, and I felt that it was unfair for me to stay and take a spot that someone else who was passionate about SGA could have. For me, I felt that we weren’t as productive as we could have been last semester and I hope that changes this semester! We lost a lot of trust, so I hope they are able to get to work and regain that trust,” Ford said. 

After Chairman Brite was dismissed and Chairwoman Audrey Johnson resigned, Statom appointed senator Madison Reese to be chair of the Student Welfare committee and senator Aliyah McCary to be the chair of the Elections and Recruitment committee.

Senator Ernest Elphage joined in the middle of last semester and says he believes this semester to be beneficial. 

“I feel as though everyone is wanting to make a real and positive change that they feel will become helpful to the students in the future,” Elphage said. 

Statom says that no new senators have been added this semester because it is too close to election season to install new senators who will only get a few months of experience before elections.

Walton declined to comment when asked if there was any commonality between those who had resigned. In regard to issues resulting from the impeachment, Walton and Statom choose to see the positives in the situation. 

“My perspective of it is that it’s given all of us an opportunity to have civil discourse, because that’s huge. Being in college we have a chance to disagree with people, but do it in a way that’s respectful of each other as human beings, because throughout that process, we’re going to encounter all sorts of people throughout our lives in our careers after this, but college is kind of a safe space where we can experience that without having to deal with it in the real world, so having that experience now is something that I think has made us grow,” Walton said. 

Statom shared similar sentiments and stated that he was proud of the growth that had been made within SGA since the impeachment hearings. He also stated that, although he didn’t want to lose anyone, the reduced numbers in the senate prepared for the new elected system that is being put in place for the upcoming elections. 

In the new system, senators will no longer collect signatures to be appointed, but will run to be elected. The apportionment numbers are based on enrollment numbers for the respective degree-granting colleges. The full senate will consist of 18 members, five from the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering, five from the College of Business and Technology, two from the Anderson College of Nursing and Health professions, three from the College of Education and Human Sciences and three first year seats, a new addition to the senate that will allow for representation by three freshman students, who will be appointed by senate in the fall. 

Based on a resolution suggested by Former Chairwoman Johnson, Presidents and Vice Presidents will now run on a joint ticket.

Currently on the senate floor is an amendment to Bill 22-02, the absentee policy. In the amendment brought to the floor by Chairwoman McCary, four absences will be allowed for senators, whether or not they are excused or unexcused. After four absences, the senator will be sent to judicial review to discuss further action before being dismissed. 

“Under the old policy, there’s always the appeal process. Students, if they were dismissed or excused, have the right to appeal, even under the current code of laws. Whether they choose that right or not is up to them. The old [current] Code of Laws puts the Executive Council in a bad situation where they’re having to make that decision. Now, senators just know they get four absences per semester with this proposed one, whether it’s an emergency or not, but if you go over, then you’ll have the opportunity to appeal, which is the same as the other process. It’s just giving another absence, and it’s giving that responsibility to judicial,” said Dr. Tammy Jacques, the staff advisor for Student Government Association. 

Walton and Statom also emphasized that they have not turned down a request for an absence to be excused all year. 

Walton’s suggestion for anyone interested in SGA is simply for them to run for office. 

“If you can make a difference, you have a duty to do so,” Walton said. “Feel free to reach out to us. Feel free to talk. It really is not as daunting as it may seem.”

“I really hope that there are people out there who are interested in joining SGA, because I really don’t know what it’s going to take,” Brite said. 

Jake Statom is a junior, so the question has been raised as to whether or not he will be running to be a part of SGA again. He told the Flor-Ala that he has not yet made a decision, but is assessing his options. SGA elections will begin on March 14.