At a town hall forum held Wednesday evening in the Old University Union, the Student Association Executive Board discussed SA incorporation at length.
During the hour-long discussion, the E-Board reiterated the benefits of incorporation and addressed concerns that the SA would briefly lose its tax-exempt status. They also spoke frankly about the differences between this year’s push for incorporation and last year’s failed attempt.
The current leaders of Binghamton University’s student government are simply filing to become a not-for-profit 501(c)3 corporation, essentially switching the way the organization’s paperwork is filed. By switching from an “association,” as the SA currently stands, liability for lawsuits concerning SA activity will rest on the SA as a corporation, instead of on students or their parents.
Catherine Cornell, SA vice president for programming, indicated that the current status of the SA leaves individuals open to potential litigation.
“Something as mundane as a balloon could be a huge liability because all you need is one person allergic to latex walk into your party, come into contact with it … and they’d have an allergic reaction,” Cornell said. “And suddenly you, your E-Board, people attending who brought the balloon — they’re all involved in a lawsuit.”
Kate Flatley, SA vice president for academic affairs, followed Cornell.
“Look, this sounds very morbid, even possibly far-fetched to some people listening to it, but it’s our responsibility to protect the students, it’s our responsibility to assess the risk,” Flatley said.
DEARTH OF TAXES
SA President Katie Howard began the forum by clarifying an initially concerning aspect of incorporation — that the SA, during the process of becoming a 501(c)3, would briefly lose its tax-exempt status — which was reported by Pipe Dream earlier this month.
“We thought that we were going to lose our tax-exempt status for a certain period of time while we were filing for incorporation and non-profit status,” Howard said. “But then we looked over our notes and talked to our lawyer a little bit more and realized that’s not the case.”
The E-Board was originally under that impression that “there would be a gap between when we were incorporated and did not have tax-exempt status and when we were incorporated and had tax-exempt status,” Howard said.
The E-Board will begin filing paper work to create a separate, incorporated Student Association body, while today’s SA continues to exist legally and functionally. Once incorporation status is granted to the shell organization, a future E-Board will take the student government and “move it over” to the now-incorporated SA, according to Howard.
The process will take about two years.
NOW AND THEN
Last spring, the opportunity for incorporation provided the spark for a controversial overhaul of the SA’s structure. The incorporation issue, however, took a backseat in the hard-nosed constitutional fight that many saw as a battle over the soul of the SA.
Those in favor of the proposed constitution, which would have abolished the SA Assembly in favor of separate legislative bodies among other landmark alterations, argued that the institutional changes would make the SA more efficient, increase accountability and benefit students.
Opponents of the legislation, who largely conceded that incorporation as an end was positive, argued that last year’s process was rushed and exclusive. Many members of the opposition also took issue with the substance of the constitutional changes, which they thought would consolidate power and remove checks and balances within the SA.
Proponents, though, argued that rearranging the student government was necessary to incorporate. The E-Board now knows this to be entirely false.
“That’s what they said all last year,” said Assembly Speaker Drew Howard, referring to last year’s E-Board. “They said if we wanted to incorporate we would have to make these changes and obviously that’s not the case because we’re able to do it right now.”
“We all were shocked at that first meeting with the lawyer, when he was like, ‘Nothing has to change,’” Cornell said Wednesday.
The SA will move forward with incorporation without any amendments or even an official vote in the Assembly, because neither are needed, according to the E-Board.
“We’re moving ahead with just incorporation,” said Karl Bernhardsen, SA vice president for finance. “We’re not muddying the issue with anything else.”
The move is also largely non-controversial, as evidenced by the placid atmosphere of Wednesday’s discussion, which was attended only by the E-Board, SA Executive Director David Hagerbaumer, SA Administrative Director Jacqueline Zagorsky, an Assembly rep and three student journalists.
The liability component of incorporation was not a contested facet of last year’s heated intra-SA debate. On the two dueling Facebook pages — one in favor and one against the referendum that would have restructured the SA and began the process of incorporating — liability was only mentioned on the “Vote NO” page.
“It is true that formally incorporating will protect student leaders from legal liability but our system of representation does not need to be changed to do this,” the authors of the page wrote.
All current E-Board members, with the exception of Carlton Ramsay, SA vice president for multicultural affairs, were in favor of both incorporation and the rewrite of the SA constitution last spring.
When asked Wednesday whether they now view their endorsement as a mistake, E-board members stood by their assessment of the referendum at face value but admitted that the process was far from perfect.
President Howard, who co-authored the initial bill with Flatley that led to last spring’s referendum, said treating incorporation separately this year is a better method.
“So while I obviously don’t disagree — I mean I put my name on that — so I don’t disagree with the actual content in there,” she said, referring to last spring’s proposal. “I think that we’re doing it in a better way now so that we’re focusing on one issue instead of a whole bunch of them.”
Flatley said that the student body made its voice heard.
“I completely stand by everything I said last year,” Flatley said. “It is my personal opinion that what was proposed last year was the most efficient way to run the Student Association. That being said, clearly the student body did not agree with my assessment of that.”