As Temple Student Government approaches the end of its first semester with a new legislative body, one topic has become a sticking point among its members, the campaigns running for next year, and the student body — How independent is Parliament, and is it able to function effectively?
When Aron Cowen, the current student body president, took office last May, his administration began creating a legislative branch, with the goal of better representing the views of the student body.
The 37-seat Parliament held its first meeting in January. Since then, it has passed resolutions on topics like recovery housing and the university administration’s stance on becoming a sanctuary campus for undocumented students.
Parliament then began to push for more independence from the Executive Branch, which had been closely guiding the new branch in its opening months. Discord grew when representatives began to see that guidance as oversight and the branches as less than separate.
The Temple News spent the last three weeks examining the relationship between Parliament and the Executive Branch after learning of the tension between the two branches. This involved interviews with members of each branch, and reviewing documents The Temple News obtained.
The debate about the separation of powers in TSG focuses on what its constitution does and does not allow.
This is what we know:
- Parliament has been struggling with the Executive Branch denying them privileges to speak to the media and administrators.
- The tension grew when Cowen participated in a Parliament meeting on March 20, during the debate portion of proposing the resolutions.
- Both branches are working on changes to the constitution that will be completed before the end of the semester and could address the issues between the two.
- A petition asking Cowen to resign was released Sunday, two days before students could vote for next year’s Parliament and TSG administration. Some members of Parliament signed the petition.
Several members of Parliament criticized Cowen’s participation in a March 20 Parliament meeting, where he offered feedback on resolutions before they were put up for a vote. TSG’s current constitution allows the president to serve as an ex-officio member of Parliament with “speaking and introducing rights on any and all Parliament meetings, be they full or committee.” This means that TSG’s president also has the right to propose resolutions to Parliament even though Parliament’s bylaws do not allow it.
Cowen was not on the agenda to appear at the meeting. His speaking at the Parliament meeting was a main grievance in a petition posted Sunday on an anonymous Twitter account that asked Cowen to step down as president. Cowen said in a statement Sunday that he had no intentions of resigning. The petition was not a focus of a debate on Monday between the two executive campaigns running to succeed Cowen’s administration.
In an interview two days after he addressed Parliament, Cowen explained that he wanted to speak about “information and context” for the bills that were up for a vote, including one asking for the university administration to respond to a Faculty Senate letter asking for Temple to become a sanctuary university.
“I didn’t speak for it, I didn’t speak against it, I spoke to it,” Cowen said. “And all I spoke was ‘I spoke with Bill Bergman from the administration and he gave me this information about actions they have taken and he committed that they send a response.’”
According to Parliament’s minutes from the meeting, Cowen mentioned three letters President Richard Englert signed that promised to protect student rights.
Jacob Kurtz, the Tyler School of Art representative who sponsored the resolution, said Cowen’s participation could have swayed representatives’ opinions before voting. The resolution passed in a 23-to-4 vote.
“To me it was the way he was making it sound like it wasn’t worth us putting the time in passing this resolution,” Kurtz said.
“Simply, I ran the meeting,” said Jordan Laslett, the speaker for Parliament. “[Cowen] put his insight in on the piece of legislation up for discussion and obviously seemed a little controversial.”
Parliament representatives also said the Executive Branch forbade Parliament members to independently contact media outlets and university administrators. Graduate Representative Jeff Fonda wrote in an email to Parliament representatives that he felt the Executive Branch was exercising too much oversight toward Parliament.
TSG has since established that the Speaker approves interviews for representatives.
“It’s been a huge learning process for both the TSG administration and Parliament,” said Nicole Handel, the Executive Branch’s communications director. “We want for it to eventually be very sufficient on its own and everyone to know what the roles are. … Sometimes it seems like we’re overstepping but really we just want to make sure that everything’s coming across equally as a Parliament, equally as TSG and equally as an administration.”
Parliamentarian Jemie Fofanah, who helped create the legislative body’s bylaws and train the representatives after they were elected, serves as the expert on how Parliament works. She said Parliament’s push for more independence is justified, but because it is a new branch of TSG, it needed some help.
“Now that they’ve gotten started and they understand more … they are operating with a higher level of independence than they did at the beginning of the year,” Fofanah said. “Parliament needs its independence from the executive and I think everyone can stand behind that.”
Parliament did have a Liaison to the Executive Branch, but the liaison resigned in February, Fofanah said.
“It became apparent that [the liaison’s] role was overlapping with the Speaker’s role and that caused communication errors in terms of where Parliament were supposed to go to make sure they were following the rules,” Fofanah said. “I actually think it’s functioning better because there’s not much confusion as to who they should go to when they have a concern and that is the speaker.”
Laslett said conflict between the two branches is to be expected when a new body changed the way an old body was used to a different way of doing things.
“None of this is surprising to me,” he said. “This is what happens when you have a fresh organization … it’s hard to go with the change that suddenly came about.”
The petition accuses Cowen of unconstitutionally appointing Noah Goff, his roommate, as TSG’s elections commissioner. Though Goff is Cowen’s roommate, the appointment was constitutional.
The constitution that was ratified by the General Assembly at the beginning of the year states that the president, two vice presidents and the chief of staff appoint the elections commissioner.
Goff, however, was appointed to his position while TSG was still operating under the previous year’s constitution — which was ratified in November 2014 by the TU Believe administration. Under that constitution, Goff was nominated by Cowen, Handel; Kelly Dawson, the vice president of internal services; Jai Singletary, the vice president of external affairs; Melonie Collado, the chief of staff, and Meghan Hill, the deputy chief of staff. The auditor general at the time — Kayla Martin — then appointed Goff to the position.
He added that he and Goff keep TSG and being roommates “completely separate.”
“It’s hard for me to prove a negative,” Cowen said. “How do I prove there is no conflict of interest? There’s no way that I can think of to prove definitively that it doesn’t exist.”
Cowen said the current language for appointing the elections commissioner is “closer” to what he hopes it will look like after the Executive Branch and Parliament update the constitution.
Parliament created an ad hoc committee — made up of 12 representatives — on March 20 to examine its own bylaws and propose changes.
“The last report I got from them was that they have a list of changes they’d like to see,” Laslett said. “The changes regarding our bylaws are ones we can make more efficiently and quickly as our own body and we even have some changes we are looking at to the constitution to TSG as a whole.”
He added that he thinks the most effective way to implement the coming changes would be to make sure the incoming administration is aware of and agree to the changes. Then, the current Executive Branch and Parliament would begin the amendment process.
Cowen said the Executive Branch didn’t “fully anticipate the level of detail” that some of the procedures and regulations needed in the constitution.
“We’ve learned things that need to be changed,” he said. “The decision was to kind of just keep notes of things to be changed, modified and mended and then towards the end of the year, to go and change it for real.”
“In order for [Parliament’s resolutions] to work and be implemented, they have to bridge that gap with the Executive [branch],” Fofanah said. “I think on the individual level that’s going to happen regardless.”
“As for an overarching kind of, Parliament and executive unity, I’m not really sure if we can expect to see that.”
Julie Christie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ChristieJules.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article pictured Sam Trilling, candidate for SMC Rep, next to as Thomas Roof, the Commuter representative. This has been fixed.