VIRGINIA –The George Mason University student government is changing the way it does business after editors at the student newspaper informed the body it was breaking state open-meetings laws.
The Broadside Managing Editor Jeremy Beales said editors noticed several violations of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act while trying to report on the first of three impeachment trials scheduled during the spring semester. The student body president, accused of spending more than $30,000 on T-shirts without permission from the Senate, and two senators were tried at separate hearings.
During the first trial, senators went into a closed executive session without voting or listing the session on its agenda, Beales said.
The Virginia Freedom of Information Act allows government bodies to convene in closed meetings to discuss or consider “disciplinary matters” but requires those bodies to take “an affirmative recorded vote in an open meeting approving a motion that (i) identifies the subject matter, (ii) states the purpose of the meeting and (iii) makes specific reference to the applicable exemption from open meeting requirements.” The senators failed to do so, Beales said.
In response, Broadside editors wrote an editorial that called for an open trial because the student body “has an inherent right to scrutinize the actions of its elected officials.”
Beales said he was not very concerned about the first two impeachment trials, but he and other editors wanted to ensure the president’s trial would be open.
He added that he thought the senators did not follow the law because they were not familiar with it.
“This was genuine ignorance of what their requirements are,” Beales said.
Sen. Jacob Champion, the historian responsible for maintaining the body’s documents, said the student government was following Robert’s Rules of Order.
“In cases of impeachment, you would go into a closed session,” Champion said.
Before President Aseel Al-Mudallal’s trial in March, editors and senators contacted the Virginia FOI Advisory Council, a state FOI compliance office, to get clarification of the law. Executive Director Maria Everett issued an advisory in May, affirming that the senators could vote to go into executive session to discuss impeachment but not taking a vote to do so would be a violation of the state law.
Senators, at the time unsure of the law, voted to keep the president’s trial open March 29. Champion said he plans to present a bill next semester to change the body’s bylaws so they adhere to the state’s open-meetings law.
Parliamentarian Bryan Painter said he thought the senators made the right choice by leaving the trial open.
“We are a public body at a public institution, and inherently, should keep our business within the public eye,” he said in an e-mail.
Student editors agreed. “In the end, we were pleased with the result,” Beales said.
But not all of the senators felt the same way. Champion, who resigned his position during the president’s trial, said impeachments should be closed because “it’s quite ridiculous to damage someone’s long-standing respectability” for his or her participation in student government.
Beales said many students believe senators would have voted differently if the trial of the president, who was acquitted by one vote, had been closed.
“But that’s a flaw with the student senators, not open government,” he said.
Beales added that senators were not the only students to become more familiar with open-meetings laws during the past semester.
“People [at Broadside] knew of [the law],” he said, “but now people think about it much more when they’re doing reporting. We have this tool we can use and go and get information.”
The Broadside news editor is requesting salary information of administrators at the public university, a request that no one would have thought of making before, Beales said.