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USG Reform Project proposes change to referendum process

<h5><strong>USG President Mayu Takeuchi ’23 addresses the Senate in a Sept. 18, 2022 meeting.</strong></h5>
<h6><strong>Annie Rupertus / The Daily Princetonian</strong></h6>
USG President Mayu Takeuchi ’23 addresses the Senate in a Sept. 18, 2022 meeting.
Annie Rupertus / The Daily Princetonian

As part of an ongoing discussion of reform in the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), the senate heard a proposal for a potential change to the referendum process and voted on a change to USG’s committee structure in its first official meeting of the semester on Sunday, Sept. 18.

Changes to USG’s referendum process would come in the wake of a contentious election season last spring, during which USG encountered backlash for confusion around how votes were counted. They ultimately upheld an appeal against a referendum regarding Caterpillar machinery use that was passed by the student body, according to the rules set forth in the USG Constitution. 

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The proposed reform, put forth by Isabella Shutt ’24, chair of Campus and Community Affairs (CCA), calls for a shift away from “petition-triggered referenda” and towards “petition-triggered” hearings that would allow the Senate to “thoughtfully determine the methods by which student wishes can best be represented in University decision-making.”

Under the proposed reform’s framework, students who have concerns would first be directed towards already-existing channels such as emailing USG, filling out a feedback form, speaking during the public Q&A period at USG Senate meetings, contacting senate members, or writing opinion articles.

In addition, if a student were to write a petition that garnered signatures from 20 percent of the student body, USG would be required to listen to their concerns at a hearing and issue an official response. This requirement would “hold us [USG] accountable to the students,” Shutt said.

Referenda could only be directly added to a ballot by a student if they propose changes to the Honor Constitution or Class Government Constitution. The meeting slides noted that “[i]f a student wants a question on a [USG] Senate ballot that does not amend one of these two documents, then the student may convince the [USG] Senate to initiate the referendum.”

In its current form, the USG Constitution allows ballot questions to appear after a petition in support of the referendum is signed by 10 percent of the student body. 

Ultimately, this reform would give more deciding power over what questions appear on election ballots to the members of USG, who would retain the ability to add questions to any ballot. Shutt noted that this change would prompt a shift in thinking within USG away from questions of “[d]o we support this [referendum]? Are we willing to sponsor it?” to simply whether USG would like to hear from students on a given issue via a student ballot question.

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The proposed amendment would also put language review of referenda under the purview of the Chief Elections Manager and Parliamentarian, as opposed to the entire senate. The senate would still be able to overturn a rejection of referendum language by a majority vote.

The senate did not vote on this proposal at the Sept. 18 meeting, though they did vote on a proposal to require that U-Councilors and senators serve on USG core committees presented in a special meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 7.

Though Shutt initially noted she had received “significant positive feedback” on the idea, debate quickly arose regarding the usefulness of the proposal. 

“I really am not convinced that this will make committees any more productive than they currently are,” commented U-Councilor Riley Martinez ’23. 

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U-Councilor Daniel Shaw ’25 raised concerns that emphasis on core committees “reduces the autonomy of the senate,” claiming that “much of the useful work” of USG happens “outside of the core committees.”

USG Senator Walker Penfield ’25 responded to these concerns, recalling initial skepticism of the core committee structure when he first joined USG, but noted, “If we’re, as senators, assuming that productive work can’t be done under our official structures, then we’re admitting to ourselves that committees are not productive bodies of work.” 

He stressed that centralizing more USG projects under the core committees with this reform would “be highly beneficial for the senate.”

The senate ultimately voted with 11 in favor of the change and 10 opposed, with the votes as follows:

In favor: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Chair Braiden Aaronson ’25, USG Senator Ellen Battaglia ’23, USG Senator Sean Bradley ’24, U-Councilor Amanda Branom ’25, USG Senator Ned Dockery ’25, U-Councilor Uma Fox ’26, USG Senator Mariam Latif ’24, Penfield, Shutt, U-Councilor Aishwarya Swamidurai ’26, and Sustainability Chair Audrey Zhang ’25

Opposed: USG Senator Avi Attar ’25, U-Councilor Med Coulibaly ’25, U-Councilor Stephen Daniels ’24, U-Councilor Judah Guggenheim ’25, Treasurer Adam Hoffman ’23, Vice President Hannah Kapoor ’23, Social Chair Madison Linton ’24, Martinez, Shaw, President Mayu Takeuchi ’23 

Abstaining: Academics Chair Austin Davis ’23, USG Senator Gisell Curbelo ’23 (not present), U-Councilor Dillion Gallagher ’23 (not present), and U-Councilor Afzal Hussain ’25 (not present)

Therefore, the proposed requirement that senators and U-Councilors serve on core committees will not be implemented at this time, as a two-thirds majority is required to establish a standing rule. 

“As a Committee Chair, I am still recruiting senate members to serve on my committee,” Shutt wrote in an email to The Daily Princetonian, “but it is not a requirement of their position [because the resolution failed].”

The senate also reviewed the proposed budget for the upcoming semester. The fall budget totals $250,016, which includes money allocated to various committees, task forces, and projects, as well as what Hoffman described as an additional $36,000 “cushion” reserved for requests that may come up and be approved on a case-by-case basis. He noted that, for example, $20,000 of those reserves would be depleted should another bonfire take place this year.

Some senate members raised questions about the sum of money ($22,000) allocated in the budget towards the USG Movies program. The senate will vote on a final budget proposal at a meeting next week.

Finally, the senate heard an update on the Mental Health Resources working group that came out of a successful referendum last spring. Daniels detailed that the group would soon publish a report outlining a number of recommendations around 24/7 counseling, transportation funding, well-being checks that aren’t completely dependent on Public Safety, and fundraising to “expand the number and diversity of [Counseling and Psychological Services] counselors.”

USG Senate meetings are held in Betts Auditorium in the School of Architecture at 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoons and are open to all.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the proposed budget for the fall semester.

Annie Rupertus is a sophomore from Philadelphia and a News staff writer who covers USG for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at arupertus@princeton.edu or @annierupertus on Instagram and Twitter.

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