MSA Operations Committee denies Willett/Englert’s first cabinet appointee

Twelve students submitted anonymous depositions to the committee regarding the candidate, Leslie Parker.

After reviewing a dozen depositions from unnamed students and interviewing the candidate, the MSA Senate Operations Committee voted 3-2 to deny Leslie Parker appointment as President-elect Nathan Willett’s chief of staff.

Parker was the first appointee scheduled for confirmation in Willett’s executive cabinet. When introducing her, Vice President-elect Payton Englert said they hoped to confirm Parker first so she could help select the remainder of the cabinet.

Senate, which had several high-ranking members working on the Tori Schafer/Riley de Leon campaign, including the current speaker, now has the task of confirming Willett/Englert’s executive cabinet. Appointees first go through a confirmation hearing in the Operations Committee before going up for a vote from the body during full Senate.

Operations Chairman Josh Tennison said the decision to deny Parker’s appointment was based mainly on a poor definition of the role of the executive chief of staff, which is currently defined in the bylaws as at the discretion of the president. Operations Committee members said during the deliberation period of the confirmation that they felt she may be better suited for the role of director of the Department of Student Activities or of the Department of Student Services.

Twelve students and one former student submitted anonymous depositions regarding Parker’s fitness for the position, seven of them in opposition and five of them in support of her appointment. The deposition submitted by the former student was not taken into consideration.

Tennison said in an interview after the hearing that the depositions served to provide a more full view of the candidates beyond the “extreme highlights” presented by those appointing them. He said the depositions were intended to be supplementary evidence secondary to that presented in the confirmation hearing.

“I will say, [the anonymous testimony] did play a role because of a particular deposition including screenshots, but it was more about her almost being too — having too many ideas — and not having enough definition for the role,” he said. “But there was definitely one particular deposition that was highly considered.”

That deposition in question was a screenshot of the Tigers Together group chat from the night of March 8, when supporters of the Willett/Englert campaign gathered in full Senate to protest the slate’s initial expulsion from the race by the Board of Elections Commissioners, which was overturned later that night by the Student Court. In the screenshot, Parker encourages supporters to “disrupt” the Senate meeting as long as possible.

“I feel that somebody who encouraged the disruption of the legislative branch of MSA should not have a position on Exec’s cabinet,” the anonymous deposition said. “This shows that the appointee is unwilling to cooperate with Senate and wants to ensure that we don’t accomplish what we need to do.”

The March 8 meeting was also the first reading of the association’s $1.5 million budget, which took place after the extended open forum section and later in the night as a result. Operations Committee members were also concerned that Parker’s choice to encourage the disruption of Senate showed a lack of awareness of the organization, as Senate is not responsible for rulings of the Board of Elections Commissioners or the Student Court.

The other depositions submitted in opposition mainly centered on Parker’s performance as legislative chief of staff and secretary of auxiliaries last year, both of which she vacated before the end of her term.

Parker, Englert and Willett, none of whom could be reached for comment, said in the confirmation hearing that Parker moved on from legislative chief of staff to fill the vacancy in the secretary of auxiliaries. Englert said she resigned as secretary of auxiliaries for personal reasons that would be kept private.

Depositions in support of Parker’s appointment said she was hardworking and well-qualified based on her previous experience in MSA. In her first semester, Parker helped with a project to create additional student seating and power outlets in the ground level of the Student Center, a project that cost $21,300.

Because the depositions are anonymous, there is no way to verify which were submitted by students who were active in the opposing Schafer/de Leon slate or whether those students actually had the contact with Parker that they claimed.

Tennison stated in an interview that the anonymity of the statements “was something that was expressed to me that was wanted, but in practice I think that it may disappear moving forward.” Immediately after the interview, Tennison said in a Facebook message that the depositions would no longer be anonymous.

The day after, Tennison said in another Facebook message: “I spoke to our advisor and we can't require names, it's [a human resources] issue, they will continue to be anonymous but will be screened more.” He did not respond to a message asking him to clarify how it was an HR issue or how the screening process would work.

While the vote to deny Parker’s confirmation was done with a secret ballot, Tennison said Operations members would not be allowed to vote anonymously in the future.

“We don’t currently expect enough particularly of voting members [of the committee],” he said. “I have not required them to justify the reason for their vote or disclose their vote if they don’t want to. I think that that has led to an issue, like we see with Leslie’s confirmation, where they can kind of hide behind that anonymity and not have a rational reason for voting the way they do, and that stops today.”

Tennison also said that, in the future, he would ask senators who had supported opposing campaigns to recuse themselves from confirmation hearings. He said that one member who voted on Parker’s confirmation was a supporter of the Schafer/de Leon slate.

“And this, I will admit to: I set the expectation that you would come in with an open mind, but I didn’t explicitly state, and that’s something I’ll be doing moving forward, that if you were involved in the opposing campaign that you should recuse yourself,” he said. “That was not explicitly stated.”

During the Operations meeting after the confirmation hearing, President Sean Earl said he did not think there would be a candidate better qualified for the position than Parker.

“I think a conversation down the line needs to be objectivity and what the role of the committee is,” he said in the meeting.

Tennison said Operations confirmations had faced problems in the past with senators from other committees voting during hearings of controversial appointments to try to alter the outcome of the vote, but he said he had taken action to prevent that by refusing to recognize the votes of senators who switched into the committee the day of.

“One of the things I’m doing as chair is instituting a very strict policy about attendance,” he said. “It has cut down a lot on really quickly joining the committee right before to move political agendas.”

He said that he will be revising the procedure for Operations Committee confirmations.

“I think that we’re moving in the right direction but we definitely have some work to do,” he said. “I think we can make some improvements. I know that I personally have already decided to make some substantive changes.”

Willett has reappointed Parker as chief of staff and she will go through a second confirmation hearing in Operations April 4. Tennison said the committee will not accept any additional depositions about her.

Edited by Sam Nelson | snelson@themaneater.com

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