SA finance committee should be more transparent

Each year, the Student Association’s finance committee allocates about $1.6 million of SA fees to various student organizations. Without them, many student organizations and campus events – from the fall comedy show hosted by the Program Board to EMeRG, which provides free emergency medical services to GW students – could not operate. Unfortunately, the committee works largely under a veil of obscurity. In violation of the SA’s bylaws requiring that “minutes, agendas, committee documents, and other materials” be made public and the repeated promises of SA leaders to increase transparency, students will search in vain for any documents that shed light on the decisions of the finance committee – or any committee for that matter. As a result, students have practically no insight into how and why their money is spent.

This is tragic in two senses. Not only does it deny students the transparency that they deserve, it also denies the SA the opportunity to showcase the efforts of its most impactful committee. With students back on campus and student organization activity warming back up, there is no better time for the SA, and specifically, the finance committee, to make good on its pledges of transparency and release the documents, like committee minutes, necessary for compliance with its bylaws.

The SA has reaffirmed its commitment to transparency for more than a decade, and for good reason. Transparency and responsibility are crucial traits in any government, student or otherwise. Particularly when dealing with the allocation of such a large amount of student money. But despite all these promises, the SA rarely, if ever, makes concrete steps to improve transparency, which is why you still can’t find publicly available committee documents.

The shift toward greater transparency should start with the finance committee. It is both the most important committee in terms of the everyday impact it has on the lives of students, and the committee with the most resources to create publicly readable and available committee minutes.

It is a shame it hasn’t happened yet because students deserve to know the process that granted $137,590 to the Student Bar Association in 2020 fiscal year, and another $101,535 to the Medical Center Student Council. These amounts dwarf nearly every other allocation. There are good procedural reasons for these allocations. They are two of six organizations that represent entire graduate schools, and the finance committee is obligated to give them 100 percent of the student association fees from the students of these schools. But I only know that because I was present when this was discussed. On its own, one may think it odd or even suspicious that .05 percent of the orgs are receiving 20 percent of the general allocations budget, and even on its own, this policy is not above criticism.

Technically, most of the committees are open to the public. But this alone is woefully insufficient to meet the burden of transparency. First, the finance committee meetings sometimes last more than four hours and can continue past midnight. Accordingly, most people can’t find the time to attend the finance committee meetings live, and require a readable account of the meeting. Second, the Zoom meeting links for the finance committee are not made publicly available, but rather, one must first email the chair of the committee to get a link. This wrongly places the burden of transparency on students and is more broadly indicative of a lack of effort and care in providing a sufficient level of transparency.

The reason why committee minutes, finance or otherwise, haven’t been released to the public likely doesn’t have anything to do with maleficent senators gleefully misappropriating 1.6 million dollars in student funds. Rather, it’s more out of embarrassment for how bad the committee minutes have been in prior years.

I joined the finance committee my freshman year because I thought I could help make the committee more transparent. But, committee aides lacked guidance, access to feedback, and sufficient manpower. Above all, we lacked a coherent procedure. Results were predictable. The minutes could hardly be deciphered by those who had not attended the meetings in person. These problems plagued virtually all other committees and had persisted for years, which is why you don’t see meeting minutes from any other committee either.

But by the second semester, we had learned enough to realize and fix these problems. We brought on another two aides, started recording the meetings, and developed an effective procedure. Within a relatively short period of time, we had thorough, readable and accessible committee minutes that could be released to the public. Then the pandemic hit and dashed those immediate aspirations, but there’s no reason this kind of effort can’t happen again, and there’s never been a better time.

We wanted to make these minutes public because although the meetings are frequently chaotic due to a generally loose enforcement of rules of order during discussion and voting, the committee itself asks questions, deliberates and makes decisions in a manner fitting for a committee with such an important responsibility.

But just because this was true when I was a finance committee aide doesn’t mean it will always be true. Students have a right to see the decision-making process of the finance committee and determine if they have stopped making good decisions. Perhaps of most concern to the SA itself, denying students transparency will only continue to eat away at student’s trust in the SA. We saw some of the results of this lack of trust when Justin Diamond ran in 2019 on the platform of abolishing the SA entirely and gained a full third of the student vote. The current trajectory of the SA will not dissuade more students from voting for someone like Diamond in the future.

I am asking the SA to stop breaking the existing transparency clauses within its bylaws. Specifically, bylaw 501 section 2, requiring SA minutes to be released to the public. That’s a necessary but insufficient step to rebuilding student trust. The road to transparency and student trust is long, and won’t be finished by the SA merely fulfilling its written obligations. But it’s a relatively easy first step. The SA has reason to be proud of the finance committee. It does good work. Let students in on that secret as well.

Sam Swinson, a junior majoring in political science, is an opinions writer.

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