An ambitious president seeking dramatic reform has thrown the Residence Hall Association executive board and senate into debate and conflict.
RHA President Turner Johnson, a second-year political science student, drafted a new constitution that includes changing the name of the organization to Residence Government Association, restructuring accountability for the approximately $100,000 RHA budget and increasing the power of the president.
While Johnson says these changes will benefit the organization and help it better serve students, the current and previous executive boards expressed strong reservations with the changes — reservations that Johnson has largely ignored. Accusations concerning Johnson’s actions and those of the executive board have soured relations so much, one board member said that “it’s getting to the point where everything is going to collapse or everyone on the exec board is going to leave or get impeached.”
How did it reach this point?
When Johnson, then a senator from Bates House, ran for the presidency in April, he campaigned on “reconnecting": to the administration; to the target market, on-campus residents; and within RHA itself. National Communications Coordinator Dylan Myers remembers a slick, well-presented address with many good ideas.
After winning the election, Johnson wrote out his extensive plans for the organization, articulating for the first time many of the ideas now found in his proposed constitution. After previous RHA President Tyler Magee expressed concerns with the feasibility of Johnson’s plans, Johnson stopped responding to Magee.
Over the summer, Johnson worked independently from the executive board to create the soon-to-be-proposed constitution as well as creating a website under the name Resident Government, residentgov.org. He also began using “Resident Government” and other currently unofficial terminology in official correspondences, including to Student Body President Ross Lordo.
“Last year the cabinet voted in favor of proceeding with the name change,” Johnson said. “So, Resident Government is more of an alias that we use currently and unofficially.”
But members of the previous executive board — which he hopes to rename the cabinet — say that vote never happened.
“Not only did we not vote on it, but he didn’t even approach us for advice,” Treasurer Matthew Warren said. Warren served as treasurer of RHA last year as well.
In addition to the name changes, the proposed constitution eliminates executive board stipends and introduces new powers to the executive board and senate for increased checks and balances over the individual hall governments.
“He definitely has proposed some new things that I think could help the organization,” Myers said. “Just sometimes it’s mixed with some things that not the whole exec board agrees with.”
Communication broke down between Johnson and his executive board, Magee said, when he stopped listening to their feedback. This lack of communication has caused administrative problems since the beginning of the semester, ranging from not everyone being notified of events to no student organization requests for RHA funding being approved.
While Johnson isn’t required to seek feedback from the rest of the executive board on legislation he seeks to get proposed, some members of the board feel that their experience and expertise means they should be involved in the conversation.
“[He’s] bypassing asking people that are the most qualified,” Warren said.
The newly elected RHA senate is composed of “99 percent” freshmen who are in their second month on campus, according to Johnson.
“They don’t even understand how RHA has worked in the past, how it’s supposed to work,” Warren said.
Both he and Myers expressed reservations with how Johnson presents the proposed constitution as the “new” constitution and the current constitution as “old” to the new senators.
“I was personally a little bit worried that, with all these freshman coming, their first experience, they might just accept this as fact,” Myers said.
Johnson and the vice president have met with every new member of RHA in a group setting, including Stephen Dilullo, the president of Cliff Hall. Dilullo has become Johnson’s unofficial voice to the rest of the the senate. He doesn’t think that the majority freshman makeup of the senate is a problem; in fact, he thinks they bring new ideas and a more relevant perspective.
“As of right now [the executive board members] do not want us to be able to vote on the constitution and do not care for what we have to say,” Dilullo said in a GroupMe. “Turner is on our side and wants to change a lot of the way things are working.”
The elimination of executive stipends and the increased checks and balances are particularly appealing to Dilullo, who thinks that the executive board shouldn’t receive stipends since other RHA members don’t.
Screenshots of the GroupMe circulated among the executive board, several of whom were upset to see Dilullo say their opposition to Johnson was motivated by the stipends, which range from $400 to $600 annually.
“That’s never come up in any meeting,” Warren said. “We’ve never discussed it.”
Dilullo later backed off some of his statements in the “Presidents of the RGA” GroupMe, saying his statements that the executive board is trying to overthrow Johnson and that Johnson boycotted the Monday senate meeting were an “exaggeration.”
Other members of the senate have mixed views of the proposed constitution.
Adam Zager, the senior Horseshoe senator, said that he feels the “name change is not necessary, and perhaps detrimental.”
Julia Petersen, the Maxcy Hall president, was removed from the “Presidents of the RGA” GroupMe after repeatedly disagreeing with Dilullo.
Procedural rules limit the ability of executive board members to discuss the constitutional debate with senators, but Myers and Warren said they hoped the organization was getting back on the right track.
“I’ve been really surprised by the response of the newly elected senate," Myers said. "I think they’ve done a really good job.”
The RHA senate aims to vote on the proposed constitution Monday.
Note: Since the publication of this article, the website residentgov.org has been shut down and redirects to the university site rha.sc.edu.