By Everet Rummel
Citing a lack of compliance with University policy and mismanagement of ballot procedures, a student committee charged with overseeing the NJPIRG referendum voted unanimously and unofficially to nullify all votes collected before Nov 11th. The decision arrived almost 3 weeks after NJPIRG began its referendum without approval from the committee or administration on October 22nd.
The New Jersey Public Interest Research Group (NJPIRG) is a non-profit “consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security or our right to fully participate in our democratic society,” according to their website. Every 3 years NJPIRG’s Rutgers-Newark chapter must hold a student referendum to decide if the group will retain its status as a student organization funded by a special $11.20 PIRG fee that shows up on students’ term bills every semester.
“It’s part of Policy 10.3.3 that there is an oversight committee put in place to overlook the referendum of any organization that requests ‘special funding,’” said Divij Pandya, President of the undergraduate Student Governing Association (SGA) and one of the three members of the Oversight Committee.
The committee was appointed by Associate Chancellor for Student Life, Gerald Massenburg and was initially composed of Markos Papadakis, President of the Graduate SGA, Divij Pandya, President of the undergraduate SGA, Lourdes Hunter from the School of Public Affairs and Administration SGA, and Mike Bertolino, Treasurer of the Rutgers Business School Graduate SGA. However, due to schedule conflicts, Hunter and Bertolino resigned from the committee and Schuyler Edmond, Executive Secretary for the undergraduate SGA, was appointed to take their place as a voting member.
Issues arose, however, while the original committee was preparing to begin the oversight process. According to Pandya, “What happened was, they [NJPIRG] started [the referendum] without us. They started before we even had the opportunity to meet. And so that was a concern because, I mean, what major election have you ever heard of that hasn’t had any kind of committee or overseeing body to make sure that it is done with integrity?”
Minutes from the meetings of the Oversight Committee show that on Nov. 11, all three members voted to deem all ballots collected before that date null and void. According to Pandya and Papadakis, this motion did not officially nullify the votes, but has sparked talks between the committee, administrators, and the Rutgers-Newark NJPIRG Student Chapter over the extent of the allegations, whether the ballots collected are legitimate, and how to proceed with the referendum.
“Right now, there are multiple offices communicating with each other to work out the details of the parts of the policy that are not clear. We’re basically waiting for that. That has been going on since this past Thursday [November 14],” said Markos Papadakis, President of the Graduate SGA. “We’re waiting on administration for clarification on how stuff like that [nullification] is done.”
Associate Chancellor Massenburg, who’s the primary overseer of the NJPIRG referendum, declined The Observer’s request for an interview for this article.
The committee cited several reasons for voting to nullify the ballots, including allegations of student IDs not being checked while ballots were submitted, ballot boxes being stored in undisclosed locations and left unsupervised outside campus buildings; ballots being submitted by students in unsealed envelopes; failure to submit required documentation to the Oversight Committee and/or the administration 10 class days prior to the start of the referendum in addition to the ballot question and NJPIRG statement of purpose not being approved by the administration and/or the Oversight Committee; as well as failures to submit a concept plan, budget, and timetable for when the referendum would begin and end to the proper authorities.
The committee has stated that most of these allegations are in direct violation of University policy.
“We tried our best to establish communications with the Oversight Committee,” said Loren Whitaker, Chapter Chair of the Rutgers-Newark NJPIRG Student Chapter. According to Whitaker, NJPIRG sought approval of its referendum question from the committee.
When asked if the Oversight Committee ever approached NJPIRG about any issues while the referendum was being held, Whitaker said “There were a few issues brought up but they were never very specific.”
“The pitching organization [NJPIRG] and the oversight committee are talking to administration; trying to settle some things. There’s definitely some confusion,” Whitaker said.
As of this printing, a decision by the administration on whether NJPIRG violated University policy, whether the ballots are to be nullified, and how to proceed with the referendum is pending.