July 20, 2018 | ° F

Senate charge may limit comments at meetings

In the coming months, the University Senate's University Structure and Governance Committee will consider a charge to consider limiting discussion during Senate meetings when motions are on the floor to only Senators and invited guests.

"The University Structure and Governance committee has been tasked to consider the best way for the public to provide input while still enabling the Senate to conduct its business," USGC Co-Chair Jon Oliver said. "The charge is not meant to restrict input at all but simply to provide the proper venue for that input."

The committee has only now begun discussing this charge, said Oliver, who is also the associate director of Information Technology. Their deadline to respond to the Senate Executive Committee is not until the December meeting.

Aside from limiting discussion during Senate meetings to only Senators and guests, they will also consider proposals to provide for public input to only during the University president's annual address, the three annual campus reports and other times such as during public hearings or forms, according to the charge language available at the Senate Web site.

The charge was born from the USGC itself, based on its own general discussions and proposed to the Senate Executive Committee on Feb. 6, 2009 by USGC former Co-Chair Tricia Nolfi, said Ken Swalagin, executive secretary of the University Senate. The issue arose largely out of comments and concerns expressed after the November Senate meeting when the recommended, revised referendum guidelines were adopted.

"Obviously, this charge comes from the debate over [The Daily] Targum's fee on the term bill — I don't know of there being any other problems of public input being limited at Senate meetings," said Josh Slavin, student representative to the Board of Trustees.

The November Senate meeting is the meeting where several non-senator students continued to speak at the microphone about special student organizations after the time to speak had expired, according to the Senate minutes for the Nov. 6 meeting.

"While I am not on the Structure and Governance Committee, I see adding a ‘public sector' to the meeting agenda as a potential solution," said Slavin, a Livingston College senior. "If any individual or group feels that would not provide sufficient time to make their voice heard, I'd recommend meeting with Senators and other decision makers at some point before the meeting. In reality, that's probably a better approach than expounding on every point during full body meetings."

The charge presents a problem for the manner in which Senate meetings should be held, Slavin said. They want to encourage public input at meetings, but a small minority can potentially drown out and overrun the people there who will actually do the voting and thus need to be able to speak.

"It's complicated. Parliamentary procedure, as defined by Robert's Rules of Order, is followed in Senate meetings," Swalagin said. "That's common practice in organizations like the Senate, particularly very large ones. It helps maintain decorum, keep the organization on task and assure that members can be heard. Those procedures include provision that all members of the body speak before non-members."

There have been many times in the 56-year history of the Senate when non-Senators have spoken before, after or when no Senators have spoken, he said. Even though a Senate meeting is not a public forum, especially since it has a specific pre-approved agenda with docketed items beyond which discussion is technically out of order, there are times when it's appropriate to grant the floor to a non-Senator.

"As one of the shared governance boards, the University Senate should have provisions in place for allowing for public input," University Senator Kevin Wild said. "I would be in support of a measure that would allow a public comment portion of the meeting similar to the way in which the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees currently operate."

The Boards of Governors and Trustees operated with a pre-registered speaker system. They are available only to speak during a specific time at the meeting.

"I would not be in favor of opening every discussion of the University Senate up for public discussion," said Wild, a Rutgers-Newark University College junior. "Just as the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees, we have been chosen to represent the student body. However, allowing public comment during a time set-aside for that purpose would be favorable."

Senate meetings begin with the president's remarks and report, Swalagin said. Since Richard L. McCormick became president of the University, the period after his remarks has been an open session where anyone is invited to ask questions on any University subject.

"On the other hand, the Senate is a representative body, and in that spirit, all members of the Rutgers community, including alumni, have representation through which they could make their comments or opinions known," he said. "And there are practical and proscribed overall time limits to Senate meetings, as well as pre-approved, item-specific time limits on occasion."

The above is only about a quarter of the considerations that go into trying to operate a 225-person deliberative body such as the Senate within the context of approximately 400,000 or more community constituents including alumni, Swalagin said. The Senate committee exploring this issue will need to deliberate on many ideas.

"Therefore, it's not that the Senate is trying to decide when and where to limit discussion specifically, but how to accommodate the needs of both the Senate and the community, and to see where changes can be made or processes added to promote discussion," he said. "As for the specifics, it remains to be seen where the committee will go with this."

None of the past USGC co-chairs were available to speak as of press time.

Cagri Ozuturk

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