The Student Association Senate did not comply with Open Meetings Law, according to state top open-government official

SA officials change position, agree to alert Spectrum reporters ahead of all Senate meetings

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The Student Association didn’t notify The Spectrum or other news media in advance of its last Senate meeting, a public meeting where students move and distribute student activity fee money.

The SA President Gunnar Haberl, chairperson of the SA Senate meeting on Oct. 11, said he was following SA’s past “precedent” by only posting the event on SA's event calendar and sending an email to senators.

For at least two-and-a-half years, the SA Senate has not notified The Spectrum about upcoming meetings, according to email records. Haberl said SA notifies the public five days in advance via its website and its SA Senate listserv, an email group for SA Senators.

But New York’s top open-government official said SA’s “precedent” is not adequate and is not compliant with New York’s Open Meetings Law.

Robert Freeman, executive director of New York’s Committee on Open Government, said the media must be notified before public meetings.

The Spectrum reached out to Haberl and SA Chief of Staff Jacob Brown about New York’s Open Meetings Law on Friday morning. Haberl responded that SA will begin to notify The Spectrum about meetings via email. 

“It is my hope that The Spectrum is doing their due diligence to hold all University at Buffalo student governments and on-campus organizations to the same standards,” Haberl wrote in an email.

The SA Senate is by no means the only governing body at UB –– or even across western New York ––  to violate New York’s Open Meetings Law. In fall 2017, The Buffalo News reported that the UB Council had moved its meetings behind closed doors for years, and earlier this month, The Spectrum reported the UB Council did not allow members of the public into its meeting, a violation of Open Meetings Law according to Freeman.

Because the Senate can allocate student activity fees as a legislative body, its policies have to comply with open-government laws, Freeman said.    

“The law requires that notice be given to the news media, posted in one or more designated, conspicuous public locations and, when possible, notice is supposed to be given on the entity’s website. It doesn’t matter if it’s precedent, what does matter is what the law requires,” Freeman said.

The Open Meetings Law requires public bodies, such as the SA Senate, to provide news media with the time and place of a meeting scheduled at least a week in advance. The law also requires SA to post the meeting time and place in “one or more designated public locations at least 72 hours before such meeting."

For all other meetings, the law requires that public notification of the time and place “shall be given or electronically transmitted, to the extent practicable, to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at a reasonable time prior thereto."

The law requires SA, if it “has the ability to do so,” to post meeting information on its website, which it’s required to do at least five days in advance, according to the SA constitution. SA posted the Oct. 11 meeting time and place online.

Haberl was the Senate chairperson on Oct. 11 because that day’s Senate meeting was the first of the school year, and the Senate had not yet decided on a chairperson for the year.

SA’s constitution states when the office of Senate chairperson “is vacant,” for instance, the SA President “shall chair any meetings of the Senate during such absence or vacancy.”

Haberl said he has tried to improve the Senate’s compliance with open-government laws by removing a rule from the club handbook that last year allowed senators to remove club members from meetings. He also said upcoming SA Senate minutes, once approved, will be on the SA website.

“I’ve also asked the Senate chair to work with senators to come up with a common meeting time,” Haberl said. “In the past, [meetings] have just been random days, there hasn’t been a set day for senators to meet so I asked the Senate chair to contact all the senators for their availability to come up with the best meeting time.”

SA emailed The Spectrum about the next SA Senate meeting. The meeting will be on Friday at 5:30 p.m. in 378 Student Union.

Benjamin Blanchet is the senior features editor and can be reached at benjamin.blanchet@ubspectrum.com and @BenjaminUBSpec on Twitter.