Stony Brook University’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) approved its finalized budget for the 2019-20 school year at the end of May, which includes a $15,000 increase in legal fees.
The legal fees will go towards paying lawyers who will be looking over USG’s governing documents — the USG Code and Constitution — to make sure that they are abiding by both the Chancellor Guidelines and Labor Laws. The lawyers will also be working to make sure that the documents include clear guidelines for the organization when creating contracts and procedures with vendors for events.
Last year’s USG budget originally allocated $10,000 towards legal fees but upped the amount to $35,000 when the budget was revised in the fall and USG members realized they might need to hire legal advisors to help sort through their documents. This year’s allocation totals $50,000, representing a 1.4% allocation of the overall budget toward legal services.
The lawyers will work on USG documents throughout the summer and the following academic year.
“The goal for our organization is to ensure that we have sound rules in place for future leaders to follow,” Adrian Ortega, senior computer engineering major and treasurer for the executive council of USG, said.
Ortega pointed to the previous student government at Stony Brook University, the Student Polity Association, Inc. (Polity), which was placed in receivership in 2002 and subsequently lost the ability to administer the Student Activity Fee (SAF).
The receivership gave Polity the opportunity to concentrate on reforming the internal structure and governing documents without the burden of appropriating SAF money to student clubs and organizations. However, the inconsistencies in their governing documents were still not addressed, leading to their demise in the fall of 2002 when campus administration decertified them as a student government.
USG replaced Polity in 2003 but still struggled to update their documents, Ortega said.
“Polity fell through because their documents were contradicting and not proper, so that is why the emphasis is being placed on the legal fees for the year,” Ortega said at the final USG budget meeting, according to the USG Senate minutes.
“We are hiring lawyers to avoid the same outcome as the previous governing body,” he said. “As good as students are, we can’t handle this type of work due to the lack of experience.”
Ortega believes that if USG were to create and review their governing documents without guidance, the organization would be going down the same path Polity did in the past.
“In the worst case scenario that USG closes, every affiliated club and organization will be affected as well,” Ortega said. “I consider this as a great investment since everyone will benefit from it.”
Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, Richard J. Gatteau, approved the budget. He told The Statesman that he believes the legal review is very important since it hasn’t occurred for many years.
“Given that USG manages a very large $3.5 million dollar annual budget, the $50,000 allocation is a reasonable and sound investment in receiving appropriate legal advice,” he said.
The student activity fee is USG’s primary source of funding and is paid by all full-time members of the undergraduate student body at SBU. The $99.75 per semester SAF has remained the same for at least the past four years. SUNY guidelines dictate that the fee needs to be approved by students every two years.
At the final USG budget meeting, Andrew Machkasov, senior mathematics major and senator for the College of Arts and Sciences for USG, expressed discomfort at the amount allocated towards legal fees. He said he believed there were more effective ways of spending the student activity fee.
“I think that the student activity fee is something that should be invested towards areas where its spending is more visible to students,” Machkasov said in an interview with The Statesman. He suggested that a better use of the money would be to expand the amount allotted to grants for clubs, allocating more towards direct outreach to students.
Though Machkasov doesn’t think that USG should completely reject the idea of seeking legal counsel, he still feels the question of necessity is important, especially since contracts and governing documents are two very different things, according to Machkasov. He believes legal advice is good for contracts since there are no standards set, leaving USG to write them without guidelines.
“It shouldn’t be the burden of undergraduate students to do legal research and draft a contract template, as they are likely to make a mistake even if very careful, and having an organization that we contract to exploit a student’s error can be extraordinarily costly,” Machkasov said.
USG’s governing documents, which consist of a 50-page Constitution and a 300-page Code, were already given some feedback this past year. Machkasov pointed out that the increase in money allocated towards legal fees opens up the possibility of having lawyers write brand-new documents.
“I wholly disagree with having outside lawyers actually write new documents, as that route will make things suspect both financially and legislatively,” he said. “It would be extraordinarily expensive for lawyers to draft documents of that length, even when they have a foundation in the existing documents. The idea that [the] governing documents [would] be written by lawyers who speak largely with the executive branch, and who would have most likely been charged with this duty without necessarily a consultation of the Senate, is overstepping into the Senate’s power to write and pass their own legislation.”
He pointed out that the Senate has the sole power to write new legislation for the USG, and having lawyers do so with the Executive Council supervising raises questions about the separation of powers. Machkasov acknowledged, however, that the Senate would still need to pass the new documents, regardless of who wrote them.
Gatteau believes that USG is taking the correct step forward.
“Obtaining legal advice for an organization as large and complex as Stony Brook’s student government is necessary to ensure its student leaders make sound and informed decisions,” Gatteau said.