Illinois Student Senate possibly breaches Open Meetings Act with private Facebook group

The Illinois Student Senate’s private Facebook group may have breached the Illinois Open Meetings Act as select members, who met quorum, took part in discussions online.

Jenny Baldwin, vice president-internal, said discussions occurred without executive board oversight, and Timmy Knudsen, former vice president-external, said many of the discussions were typical of those found in any other RSO’s Facebook group.

According to 2010 research by the Student Press Law Center, there are few guidelines to predict whether student government meetings would be required to abide by the Open Meetings Act. However, in the Illinois Student Senate constitution, the senate is required to follow all provisions of the act, in accordance with their long term goals of transparency and inclusiveness.

“We are glad The Daily Illini brought this matter to the senate’s immediate attention. The Senate will move to open the group for public comment at Wednesday’s meeting under President (Damani) Bolden’s leadership,” said Carey Ash, former student senator as well as law and doctoral student. “This way, our fellow Illini will be able to constantly communicate with their elected leaders, any place, any time.”

A senator created the group following spring elections, but some staff and executive board members, including the director of communications, were not included.

During Knudsen’s resignation at Wednesday’s ISS meeting, he mentioned how he felt like an outsider when he was contacted by senators with concerns regarding the Facebook group. He said that on the Facebook page, senators had shelled groups of constituents out from receiving information, even including the name of one of these constituents.

Knudsen said a majority of senators are great student leaders who are there for the right reasons, but some need to focus on their roles and rethink why they ran for senate.

“Some people view it as a very political body, yet we are a school. We have the ability to make little impacts that can help students greatly, and I just want them to focus on that as opposed to positioning themselves for a larger role later,” Knudsen said. “It’s really the politics of it that flogs a few students from having a positive impact on the University.” 

Baldwin said the Facebook group was started with “innocent” intentions in mind and is similar to groups other RSOs would create. She said it was a way for all other ISS members to interact more with each other on Facebook because the only other time they see each other is at meetings. 

“However, we are obviously a voice and an image of the student body,” Knudsen said. “The Facebook group is a hiccup in trying to work toward complete transparency.” 

Former student senator and former graduate student Mark Rosenstein said this type of behavior from the senate does not surprise him and that many were using the group to criticize former senators. Rosenstein was involved in Caucus, an ad-hoc group within the senate that was not quite “official,” where senators were strong advocates in questioning the student government and their lack of fiscal responsibility.

“A lot of senators did not take too kindly to that. Senators have come out and said that former senators should not be on the (ISS) listserv anymore,” Rosenstein said. “So, from the looks of it, they are more interested in protecting their own personal interest instead of serving their constituents.”

Though the senate has made many attempts to rewrite its constitution, he said everything circles “back to this,” and the group should be dissolved and restarted from scratch.

“No matter what the leadership is, it circles back to total chaos and becomes a ‘gentlemen’s club,’” Rosenstein said. “People form groups and look out for each other’s best interests and when someone comes along and is critical of the establishment, they don’t take kindly to that and work to their full ability to shut those people out.”

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Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Carey Ash is a senator and Mark Rosenstein is a graduate student. Ash is a former senator, and Rosenstein is a former graduate student. The Daily Illini regrets the error.