It’s an acrimonious political drama featuring charges of corruption, cronyism and misdeeds; liberals versus conservatives; a lawsuit; and the impeachment of a constitutional officer. In terms of acrimony and anger, if not the stakes, it mirrors anything that’s rattled the corridors of Washington, D.C.
Is it the latest Showtime or Netflix drama? Nope. It’s the UNLV undergraduate student government.
The essential story is this: Oct. 3-4, an election was held for the student senate government, collectively called CSUN (Consolidated Students of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas). A slate called “Rebels United,” backed by Las Vegas conservative activist and UNLV student-body President Mark Ciavola, took most of the spots on the 25-seat Senate.
Dozens of accusations of problems and irregularities followed the two-day election. The largest of the reported problems, Ciavola says, was a dispute over CSUN Senate Bylaw 33, which reads, “The Board shall establish an Operating Policy to be approved by both the Elections Board and the Senate.” The CSUN Judicial Council called for a new election on the grounds that the elections board had not drafted a new operating policy; however, Ciavola contends the board doesn’t require a new policy for every election, that it may use the last draft put in place.
Downed online voting systems and compromised ballots were among the other complaints, and the judicial council, a nine-member elected board, eventually ordered a new election.
The new election, held Nov. 28-29, brought a majority of seats to a slate opposed to Ciavola, called “Rebels Rising.”
Ciavola, who was featured several years ago in CityLife because of his work on behalf of gay conservatives, says the second election was improper, and he seated the winners of the original election. Meanwhile, the vice-president of the senate, Sara Farr, has sued in state district court to overturn Ciavola’s move.
In response, the Ciavola-supported senate has moved to impeach Farr. And a majority of the student judicial council has resigned, leaving the student government without a functioning check on its activities. Farr and her attorney declined an invitation to comment.
All this would be a tempest in a teapot except for one thing: There’s a lot of money involved. CSUN’s annual budget is more than $1 million. Further, students elected to the senate get $50 per meeting — not a princely sum to most, but a nice paycheck for college students surviving on ramen noodles — plus a $5,000 yearly stipend for tuition.
Both Rebels United and Rebels Rising have criticized the judicial council for scheduling the second election more than a month after the first, because the CSUN constitution required the second election to be held on a Wednesday and Thursday within a week of the council declaring the first to have been improper. Ciavola says that means the second election doesn’t count; the challengers say Ciavola himself helped delay the second election.
Ciavola says he consulted UNLV Law and various authorities around the university, though most were hesitant to advise him. Ciavola says UNLV President Neal Smatresk refused to take sides, but told Ciavola that his decision sounded “reasonable.”
Ciavola says he would have happily honored the second election had it taken place within a week’s time, and that his decision to seat the first senate wasn’t influenced by the fact that his party had won more seats in the first election.
“Either way, 25 people are upset,” Ciavola says. “It was clear the first election was the more valid of the two.”
As the man at the center of the issue, Ciavola is a decidedly nontraditional student who has never been afraid of antagonizing or offending whoever is on the other side of his issues. He most recently made waves in March by opposing the Nevada Student Alliance’s support for more funding for higher education — funding that Ciavola said would go to faculty and staff, and therefore not help UNLV students.
Ciavola worked for Republican Congressman Joe Heck’s successful re-election effort last fall and can be counted on to support conservative causes and candidates. Several years ago, he organized regular protests outside the classrooms of Dina Titus, then a UNLV political science professor and now a congresswoman representing Las Vegas.
But it is Ciavola who has accused the leaders of Rebels Rising of having a liberal agenda, and he says it is they, the liberals, who have injected partisanship into the campus election turmoil.
The liberals say Ciavola consistently uses student government to advance his conservative agenda, including backing a reduction in students fees — now at $2.47 per credit — that mirrors the national Republican agenda of cutting taxes and government services. A full-time student takes 12 or more credits. Reducing student fees would mean a reduced CSUN budget, which funds school events and activities.
Elias Benjelloun, a senior biology major, was one of the few senators elected to both the first and second election. However, he resigned his seat in January.
“I couldn’t find myself sitting in a room with an illegitimate senate,” Benjelloun says.
He is not shy about admitting that he has a liberal political perspective on national issues — he was president of the UNLV Young Democrats, worked on the Titus congressional campaign and did a fellowship with the Obama for America campaign. Benjelloun says, however, that student government should be above partisanship.
“Mark continues to try to bring politics into the situation,” he says. “It is a total mess.”
Karla Washington, a senior in hotel administration and events, is a member of an ad-hoc group called Students Against Mark Ciavola. Washington served as a senator until this year. The situation, with the legitimacy of the current senate debated, “to be honest, it is a piece of crap,” she says. “Our student body president has hoodwinked the entire campus, lied and manipulated the entire campus … . I will do anything in my power to get people to understand who Mark Ciavola is.”
Perhaps the most important question around the turmoil at UNLV is who is watching the watchmen. The Nevada Board of Regents sets the policy that makes CSUN a largely autonomous institution.
The judicial council, with at least six out of nine seats empty, is not functioning, though Ciavola says one or two nominations should be made this week. Judicial council nominations are made by the executive board, which currently seats Ciavola and Senate President Jay Yoon, and are approved by the senate.
That leaves the UNLV administration, but its media office, citing the Farr legal case, declined to comment. Representatives to the Board of Regents, which sets the rules for UNLV including its student government, referred questions back to the UNLV administration.
It is not clear if the administration has any legal ability to intervene in the case. And along with Ciavola, the senate, and the Board of Regents, UNLV is a defendant in the Farr lawsuit, so UNLV’s attorney is representing at least one of the defendants in the case.