Burton Should Step Down
Resignation best response to vote of no confidence by majority of council
In a 41-38 vote, a majority of the Undergraduate Council voted last night to expel Vice President John A. Burton '01 from his position. Although the vote was short of the necessary two-thirds required to remove him, it highlights Burton's unethical campaign practices and signifies a lack of confidence in his ability to lead the council. His credibility damaged, Burton faces two options: a wasteful year-long struggle to lead a hostile council or a swift resignation from office for the good of Harvard student government. We urge him to choose the latter.
The circus in Sever 113, however, was a sorry spectacle to all who attended, only confirming the belief that the council is ill equipped to deal with the expulsion of popularly elected officers and that such a decision should be left to the students. The notion that the proceedings were actually a "trial" couldn't be farther from the truth; the council spent as much time debating procedure as determining fact. So-called "witnesses" were asked to testify as to what they believed, thought or speculated, not what they knew, and their often partisan answers did more to obscure than to inform. During the debate on the first article of "impeachment," the "managers" on each side were poorly prepared to present their cases; the surprising ignorance of many council members concerning the most basic facts made the procedure resemble the blind leading the blind.
The meager 20 minutes that council President Fentrice D. Driskell '01 and parliamentarian Alex A. Boni-Saenz '01 allotted for the entire discussion reflected a complete lack of proportion and would have skewed the procedure in Burton's favor had council members not intervened. The repeated suspension of the bylaws by two-thirds majorities of the council demonstrates that the rules were arbitrary, poorly crafted and not well adapted for this setting. These procedural flaws were only compounded by the general lack of decorum and attention paid by many council members.
In this context, it is no surprise that the votes on the two articles of "impeachment" were in logical contradiction. On the first article, that Burton willfully misrepresented his use of campaign buttons as a "freely available resource" to the election commission, the council voted 47-33 against expulsion. On the second article, that Burton had acted improperly in taking the buttons from a student group, a majority of the council voted to expel him. It is hard to imagine how one could improperly take buttons that are freely given to students; one cannot steal a "freely available resource" any more than one can steal air. But a more focused presentation of the facts during the debate on the second article enabled council members to come to a decision that was more informed than the one they had arrived at earlier in the evening.
After a majority of the council has called for his expulsion, Burton's resignation would be in the best interest of the council and the student body. If nothing else, the "impeachment" vote was a vote of no confidence in Burton. If a majority of the council members do not think he should even hold office, let alone serve as the second-in-command, it gives rise to serious doubts as to his ability to lead the council effectively in the coming year. Last month's skirmish over special election dates foreshadows the battles that are sure to come.
This is to be expected of a council that harbors legitimate bitterness over what it perceives as ethical lapses by its vice president. As a representative, Burton was twice the subject of disciplinary action for truancy from meetings. As a candidate, Burton conducted his campaign just shy of the law and with a general disrespect for the rules. No reasonable person would believe that buttons were a freely available resource for campaign purposes, especially when the entire stock of 180 was taken at once from a locked room; any attempt to say otherwise is a semantic manipulation. The council's rules exist to ensure a fair election, and when some candidates receive advantages not available to others, the spirit of a fair election is violated. Furthermore, we are dismayed that the polarizing issue of race has been injected into the debate, and Driskell and Burton's failure to condemn the irresponsible insinuations of racial prejudice against their political opposition can be seen as tacit encouragement.
After a battle over buttons, some might accuse the council of having turned a molehill into a volcano. However, a majority of the council felt Burton's offenses were serious enough to merit his removal for "conduct unbecoming of a Harvard student." Although we sympathize with Burton's recent personal and political troubles, the unfortunate fact is that he has acted in ways unbecoming of a council vice president. A single foolish decision that could have been easily remedied with a shamefaced apology snowballed into a serious question about Burton's willingness to admit wrongdoing and make the interests of the council his first priority.
We recommended that students vote for Driskell last December in the belief that she would be able to restore the connection between the council and the student body. The great leaders are those who are willing and able to look beyond political bickering or personal affinities to act for the good of those they lead. We hope that Driskell will encourage her running mate to do what is in the students' interest. Nothing Burton could do short of a direct apology and subsequent resignation would convince the majority of the council that called for his expulsion to regain their trust in the council's leadership. Until then, the student body will hold the current administration in similar distrust.