Public response to the threat of enforcing Student Government (SG) statutes restricting the recording of open meetings has resulted in a petition for SG to change its standards.
A petition started by USF ’15 alumnus Eli Hadam-Zucker charges SG to reconsider regulations restricting recording of meetings to only the committee chair and mandate timely posting of video recordings.
He argues that Sunshine Law — or Florida Statute Chapter 119, which allows for the recording of public meetings and the release of public records — should apply to SG.
“There are other public universities in the state of Florida which do state that the student governments are liable to Sunshine Law … so it doesn’t make sense that when (Student Government Advising, Training and Operations) goes ahead and gets in touch with the General Counsel that they’re just stopping at what the General Counsel says,” Hadam-Zucker said.
SGATO director Gary Manka could not be reached for comment.
The situation arose after a senator started live-streaming the June 13 meeting and others voiced concern. While a consensus was reached where the Senate president could video record to Facebook — which did happen for sections of Tuesday’s meeting — the possible implications of enforcing the rule caused apprehension within the community.
Hadam-Zucker also voiced concerns while he was a student at USF about the accessibility of SG minutes.
“We went to SG multiple times, we told them our grievances, and it was just this constant song and dance with people pointing fingers at one another,” he said. “It just made me feel ashamed as an alumni that nothing had changed since I graduated and that there are still these issues with SG being held accountable and actually recording things so that the student body could actually be involved with the decision making.”
The petition had received 61 signatures as of Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. with a goal of 100. In addition to being directed at members of SG leadership, it also calls out USF General Counsel. Those listed include Student Body President Moneer Kheireddine, Senate President Amani Taha, Senate President Pro Tempore Yusef Shafiq and Manka.
“(General Counsel) stated that our Student Government is not subject to Sunshine Law, and that our meetings are subject to two-party consent,” Taha said. “This is not our personal opinion, rather the legal interpretation of the University.
“The petition states that since USF Senate is a public meeting, two-party consent doesn't apply — however, the question is also whether SG Senate meetings are considered public meetings by Florida Law. Public agencies have public meetings, and per the interpretation of this university and USF legal, we are not considered a public agency.”
Sen. Aladdin Hiba, who has been actively involved in conversations regarding the recording of Senate meetings by the public, has remained insistent that SG is simply following direction from the USF General Counsel.
“I know the Florida attorney general has declined — as far as I know — to provide clarification on Sunshine Law and Student Governments, and we've gotten plenty of legal opinions from legal counsel, but if students are concerned it definitely deserves being brought up,” Hiba said.
On the Florida attorney general’s website, the only mention of SG pertains to the redaction of information from SG documents. For instance, the name of an official charged with misconduct would not be redacted because they should know there’s discipline for misconduct.
However, Hiba is concerned that these discussions could give the wrong impression of SG. While not currently complying with Sunshine Laws, SG does have some regulations in place for release of public information.
“One concern that I have though is that students may inadvertently be misled into believing we don't have any public records or transparency policies,” Hiba said. “We do have our own policies, established by us in our statutes, which mandate that meetings are open to the public, recorded and transcribed, among other things, and that our documents are available for public records requests.”
Hadam-Zucker said he thinks that SGATO and SG need to push past the General Counsel and seek out alternate perspectives on the matter. Meanwhile, students need to keep an eye on their elected officials.
“With ($17.8) million on the line, doesn't someone think it is important to make sure SG is doing its part to actively ascertain whether they are following the law? For the sake of the student body, and subsequent SG administrations that will continue to follow? Asking the attorney general only seems like common sense,” Hadam-Zucker said. “I feel that students really need to be critical of the administration.”