Commentary: SGA lacks financial transparency
The Student Government Association at Texas A&M University-San Antonio oversees a budget of $40,300. The association’s funds are collected from the student activities fee from a student body of more than 5,000 students.
Public records indicate SGA’s budget is divided into four categories: wages and benefits ($18,650), expenses ($1,700), travel ($7,650) and operation/maintenance ($14,000).
Did the organization attend any professional development conferences? Did they have any expenditures related to forums or debates? Were there any expenses related to improving student life on campus? These were some of the questions we started with.
It would be pretty simple, I thought. Reach out to the newly elected treasurer for a list of expenditures, do some data crunching, and provide our students with a categorical breakdown of the association’s spending for this fiscal year.
Acquiring a list of expenditures for this fiscal year proved challenging. Lack of financial transparency was a struggle that negatively impacts our student body. Neither SGA’s president, advisors, or treasurer could provide access to the association’s records detailing how the association spent its publicly acquired funds this year. We are now waiting on the results of a public information request which we will update you on shortly.
Give in, or push on?
After three weeks of rabbit hole interviews starting in mid-April, we had to make a decision: Give in to a lack of transparency and stalling? Or, write what we could on the topic of SGA’s financial transparency and remind students they have a right to know how their Student Fees are spent.
We stayed on it with the hope of ultimately strengthening SGA. It was never our goal to criticize the organization. We just wanted the data the constitution said the organization could provide but never did.
We began our search in mid-April. We requested a list of expenditures from Cristina Dominguez, Student Activities coordinator and one of two advisors to SGA.
“I handle everything within SGA except the budget,” Dominguez said.
Dominguez directed reporters to Joanna Benavides, assistant vice president for Student Engagement and Success and the association’s other advisor. Benavides, who holds control over SGA finances, could not give an itemized list of expenditures at that time, but said she would follow up.
When asked who the Treasurer of SGA is, Benavides said she did not know.
“I mainly work with the president and vice-president of the SGA,” Benavides explained.
Benavides sent reporters to newly-elected SGA president Mary Ellen Walker for the list of expenditures. Walker could not provide a list of expenditures, explaining that she does “not handle finances.” Subsequently, we sat down with current SGA Treasurer Edward Garza after former SGA president Erick De Luna provided his contact information.
De Luna appointed Garza in September of 2016. When asked if he could give a list of expenditures, Garza stated, “I do not think I can share that information.”
“I just want to help [the SGA] as much as I can. I want to be the voice of students who have concerns,” he continued, but admitted he did not come in well equipped.
Overall, we learned that student leaders in SGA are unaware of what should be made publicly available. Students absolutely have the right know how the association spends money collected from their fees. So we persisted.
According to the SGA Constitution, the Treasurer is expected to prepare and present a Treasurer’s report at every meeting, oversee the disbursement of all SGA funds, and keep track of all income, transfers, and expenditures within the SGA.
In addition, the association’s meeting minutes should include the Treasurer’s report of funds spent. The association files some meeting minutes on JagSync, an online student organization portal. But we could only find four documents for the 2016-17 school year. Dominguez confirmed many more should be available.
“All meeting minutes should be up. This is what we have at the moment,” Dominguez said.
None of the minutes include a Treasurer’s Report.
Up until mid-semester, students could read upcoming agendas on the association’s agenda board, located in Game Room on the first floor of the Central Academic Building. The board is now empty.
“The minutes are supposed to be posted, but we felt it would be better to be blank than have outdated information,” Walker said.
And that’s where we are. A&M-San Antonio has 10 business days to respond to The Mesquite’s public information request. Or, the association itself could provide a spreadsheet to Jaguar Student Media in Central Academic Building, Room 320.
We will follow up with an update.