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Press Clipping: University of Central Florida - Current, former SG senators express concerns about senate 'toxic' culture

Current, former SG senators express concerns about senate 'toxic' culture

Sep 19, 2022
By Clarissa Moon

Samantha Ciresi lay in a hospital bed with COVID-19 and a 102.9-degree fever, but she was worrying about more than her health.

In a delirium, she stared at the screen of her cell phone as she checked the Student Government senate minutes. She saw that someone tried to remove her from her position, and after a moment of shock, she broke down crying.

"Senate is spending their time worrying about someone who is in the hospital incapable of doing anything rather than working for the student body," Ciresi said. "That's when I made the decision to resign."

The former senate president pro tempore is not alone. Seventeen senators have resigned this legislative session, several of whom cited concerns with senate culture.

Current and former senators said that the SG senate, which approves a budget of around $20 million of student fees each year, is losing sight of its purpose and isn't serving students as well as it could be. Senators said multiple resignations have led to an influx of new senators and changes in leadership that inhibit the senate's ability to do its job.

Some senators said the environment of the senate is getting better, but others fear the "toxic" culture that marked the beginning of this legislative session is returning.

Dylan Hall, the speaker of the senate, expressed frustrations about senate culture at this semester's first senate executive committee meeting on Aug. 25.

"I'm not going to govern over a chamber in decline," Hall said.

Several senators said there was a lot of infighting at the beginning of this legislative session. Brianna Urea, legislative, judicial and rules committee chair, said it's obvious there are issues going on. These meetings included four filed censures and speeches with personal attacks against other senators.

Jeannie Ossa, a senior art education major who watched meetings earlier this year, agreed with Urea's assessment.

"There was just too much conflict between all the senators that nothing actually got done, and in fact, they were more like, stepping on each other's toes on purpose," Ossa said.

Sen. Michael Kostis said it sometimes seems like the only thing senate can talk about is other senators' wrong actions.

"I have seen senate this session fall into a pit of back and forth jabs towards each other where we spent, what, a whole senate session — three hours of our time — looking at three censures at one person," Kostis said.

Urea said censures and measures like votes of no confidence can take up time when they should not.

"They can kind of drift time away from things that are more for the students rather than just for, I guess, drama and like, self-righteousness sometimes," Urea said.

Tyler Borges, the conference, registration and travel committee chair, said when the semester started, it looked like the environment would be better. However, he said it quickly became clear that the issues senate had in the past would continue.

"There's still cliques and sides and people treating people differently based on, you know, who they are — not exactly on what they're doing for students," Borges said.

He said some people are inclined to go against something a senator brings up because they don't like them. Borges said that it is not in the best interest of students, especially when it comes to fiscal legislation.

"And as a result, that could lead to just issues like miscommunications to students, or it could lead to issues of students just not getting funding," he said.

Daisy Guel, elections and appointments committee chair, said that people may see senators hanging out outside the chamber, but that does not necessarily affect their stance on issues.

"Whether or not, you know, the groups or maybe the cliques that some people might see forming, whether they all disagree, or agree, I have faith and hope in every senator in this body that they wouldn't allow that to influence where they vote or where they agree," she said.

Ciresi said she tried to stay in student government as long as she could before resigning.

"The environment that is there was just so, so toxic that it was just, like, corrupting everything, and I couldn't take it, so I had to resign," she said.

Beginning with the senate's third meeting of the session, senators have been steadily resigning, with no more than two meetings between resignations.

These resignations have caused an influx of brand-new senators and leadership changes, Katrina Wangen, operations review and sanctions committee chair, said.

They said some resignations at the beginning of the semester are a part of senate. Wangen said some people resign because they can't fit senate in with their class schedule.

"The combination of senate not being the nicest place to be in, as well as people just having other stuff to do, means that we're running through senators I feel like faster than the 53rd (session) did," Wangen said.

Borges said new senators learn from the group bringing a negative environment to senate that it is the correct way to behave.

"We have a lot of turnover, and as a result, a lot of them don't have experience," he said. "But then, you know, the group that I believe is bringing toxicity, they can be viewed as sometimes knowledgeable."

Kostis said because of first impressions formed at the beginning of the session, some senators don't realize what they can do in senate. He said it turns people off when you hear bickering and talk about student government being corrupt.

"It makes them feel like nothing can really be done and like this whole body is political theater," Kostis said.

Wangen said leadership changes are time consuming and make it impossible to get settled with one person's expectations and leadership style.

"So, it's one of those things where like, because we transition a lot, it's hard to really get anything settled and get us comfortable with it," Wangen said. "Especially like last meeting, we didn't even get through any legislation because of all the transitions."

Urea said her bill was delayed three weeks because of leadership changes.

Wangen said besides themself, senate's fiscal leadership did not come back after last session. They said only one other fiscal leader from last session returned to senate but does not hold a fiscal position.

"So, our longest running people are a bunch of people who never really bothered to get involved in fiscal," Wangen said.

Borges said Nick Foster, the recently-elected senate president pro tempore, had no knowledge of how to write fiscal bills or how the fiscal committees worked. Borges said usually, the deputy pro tempore of legislative affairs writes fiscal bills, but that responsibility fell on Foster when he did not have deputies.

"He did fail at that job," Borges said. "I did have to bring a vote of noncompliance against him in my committee; the vote did pass."

Borges said when a deputy pro tempore of legislative affairs was appointed, Foster was unable to train him.

"And all of this kind of results in either fiscal bills being out of timeline, not being written, then having extreme errors that could result in them getting vetoed," Borges said.

Foster did not respond to two emails sent over two business days requesting comment. After he redirected NSM Today to the SG external legislative assistant over the phone, multiple attempts to schedule an interview went unanswered, including two calls and two emails over the course of two additional business days. NSM Today reached out again Monday and received no response.

Multiple senators said even though this legislative session got off to a rocky start, things are getting better.

Guel said the influx of new senators has been awesome.

"It's just a new—a new start," she said.

Guel also said the new leadership has helped improve the environment of student government.

"I would say that Speaker Hall and Pro Tempore Foster and their offices have been doing a great job, as well as obviously the executive branch and the judicial branch in combating issues internally," she said.

During the senate meeting on Sept. 8, Hall said he has noticed that senators are talking to others about their concerns rather than coming straight to him. He said that makes it difficult for him to help.

"I want to be able to do everything that I possibly can to create as equitable and as fair of an environment as possible," Hall said. "But it is extremely hard for me to do that if nobody is willing to actually talk to me and works behind the scenes or behind — to be frank — my back in working on these things."

Butch Oxendine, the executive director of the American Student Government Association, said as a culture, we have changed the way we communicate, and student government leaders are not immune to that. He said he has seen this problem worsen in the last five years or so because of how people use technology.

"They're on their devices, and it's anonymous in how they respond to people," he said. "They do these very quick, anonymous comments, and so we've lost the civility, I think, and student government's not immune to that."

Oxendine said the bigger a student government is, the more contentious it is. He said George Washington University is going through several censures, potential impeachments, removals and resignations.

Oxendine said he's worried that all internal conflict does is diminish student government's already struggling perception. He said a damaged reputation can lead to a lower voter turnout, which can lead to fewer people wanting to join student government.

"Maybe they don't attract the best and the brightest like they should," he said. "People go into something else. You have hundreds of clubs and organizations they could be involved in, and they choose something instead of student government ‘cause they don't want to be part of the shenanigans."

Evann Cox, a former senator, said the system is too broken for anything to be fixed.

"Honestly, I am of the opinion that, like, the only way to fix it is to wait until every single person in senate right now graduates and start from scratch, or just like, tear everything down and start from scratch," Cox said.

Gabriel Becerra, Hispanic/Latinx Caucus vice chair, said he thinks the environment is getting better.

"I think we're all like, putting things to the side, or at least putting personal things to — business to the side as it should be because business is business," he said.

Sen. Thomas Cura said senate can be stressful for anyone, but ultimately, they are there to represent the students.

"I think that everyone realizes that we are here for the student body, and we can put everything behind us," he said.

Guel said right now, senate is a nice environment that allows senators to set their differences aside and work together for the benefit of the student body.

"So that is kind of just like realizing that people's behavior in a sense, or maybe their actions aren't always a true characteristic of who they are as people," she said. "And I guess to just realize that you don't have to necessarily love everyone to work with them."

Oxendine said the solution lies in communicating with one another.

"If I have a problem with you, I would — I should go right to you, right?" he said. "And I should not do it by phone, I should do it in person. But we have resorted to these easy, anonymous ways to — so called resolve conflict, and I just think it makes it worse."

Ciresi said it's important students are aware of what's going on in student government.

"Students, at the end of the day, elected those people to be there," she said. "Those people represent them. Students should be aware of everything that's going on — the good, the bad and the ugly."