Public Body or Not: UCOSA Under Review
Remington Dean, center, speaks during a Fall 2017 UCOSA Congress meeting, sitting with Kalina Popova, left, and Mario Figueroa, right. UCOSA is currently under review on whether or not it is considered publically funded. (Austin Moseley/The Vista)
The debate on whether the University of Central Oklahoma Student Association is considered a public body under Oklahoma’s Freedom of Information (FOI) Laws is still underway as attorneys question funding.
UCO Legal Counsel and FOI attorneys have been disagreeing on whether student activity fees are considered “public funding” for the state. The UCOSA, the college’s student government association, is a recommendation body to the Division of Student Affairs.
The organization is funded completely by UCO students’ mandatory student activity fees (SAF), included in their tuition. This semester students are paying about $15 per credit hour. The average student taking 15 hours is paying about $225 in SAF.
The determination of whether or not the UCOSA is a public body required by the state to follow FOI laws, such as the Open Meeting and Open Record Acts, comes down to the source of funding.
FOI attorney Doug Dodd said that because the fees are mandatory for each and every student to pay, he and his colleague Mike Minnis agree that they should be considered public money.
“I consider student activity funds public money,” Dodd said. “In other words, student activity funds paid to the university become public money the minute it’s paid.”
Others who agreed that SAF money were considered public funds included Oklahoma State University Associate Professor Joey Senat and UCO Media Law Professor Mark Hanebutt.
Attorneys who believe that SAF should be public money are sourcing an Oklahoma attorney general opinion from 1979 (1979 OK AG 134) that determined OSU’s Student Government Association was a public body by the definition of the OMA and ORA.
The AG opinion concluded that all other student government associations and residence halls associations were considered public bodies under the laws because they were “sub-entities of a board of higher education.”
“After the legal issue, the questions becomes if the UCO student leaders want to tell the student body that they will meet and operate in secret,” Senat wrote to the Vista in an email. “Is that a good government?”
UCO Senior Legal Counselor Brad Morelli said this isn’t the first time that the issue has been brought to him and his colleague Beth Kerr. However, this year, both Morelli and Kerr advised UCOSA President, Stockton Duvall, that the UCOSA was not a public body under the laws because they were funded purely by SAF.
In other words, the UCO Legal Counsel determined that student activity fees were not considered public funding. Kerr said UCO Legal Counsel was using an Attorney General Opinion from 1982 (1982 OK AG 63) which determined organizations have to be looked at on a case by case basis because “such determination depends upon whether the Council exercises actual or de facto decision-making power.”
“You can’t come to a general conclusion about whether they are or whether they are not a public body that is going to be subject to these two laws,” Morelli said. “Open Records and Open Meeting both seem to key off of this thing, are they operating on public money? And they don’t, they operate off of student fee money.”
Both Kerr and Morelli agreed that since the UCO Student Congress purely acts as a recommendation body for the Office of Student Affairs they shouldn’t need to follow the laws. As a recommendation body, the organization must first receive both signatures from the UCOSA advisor, Cole Stanley, and Vice President of Student Affairs, Myron Pope, in order to put SAF money towards organizations, events or projects.
However, after the interview with Kerr and Morelli, they were both unaware that the UCO Student Congressional Bylaws, the rules by which the organization governs themselves, had several mentions that the senators and congressional leadership were to abide by the laws.
“If they didn’t have to put it in their bylaws and they did, then that’s my thought, they need to be following it,” Kerr said.
After taking a look at the bylaws, Kerr told the Vista in an email that having the requirements in the bylaws “put a different spin on things” and that she would be reaching out to Stanley for clarification.
In Chapter 1, Section 6 of the UCO Congressional Bylaws, it states, “The UCO Student Congress a component of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, and as such it and its members shall abide by all Oklahoma State Laws. Specifically, the UCO Student Congress shall fully abide by both the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act and Oklahoma Open Records Act.”
The new Congressional Leadership of the Student Congress includes Chair Remington Dean, Vice-Chair Kalina Popova and Secretary Mario Figueroa. This year there have been improvements to posting the agendas on time, both outside the UCOSA office in the Nigh University Center and online at OrgSync.com.
Due to complications with OrgSync UCOSA was not able to upload its files. Attached is the agenda and CFR for the next meeting on October 2nd pic.twitter.com/cbtGZwbcQY
— UCOSA (@UCOSANews) September 29, 2017
Chair Dean said he wanted to be in compliance of the OMA and ORA since they are requirements in the congressional bylaws, but he also wants to increase the organization’s transparency.
Last semester, the Vista did a series of two investigative reports that the UCO Student Congress was in violation of the Open Meeting Act after they failed to post their agenda 24 hours in advance of their meeting. However, whether they have to follow the laws at the state level is still unclear.