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After a furious debate that lasted more than an hour and erupted at points into what one council member called "craziness and disorganization," the Undergraduate Council voted last night to overrule a decision by President Fentrice D. Driskell '01 and proceed with the impeachment of Vice President John A. Burton '01.
Driskell declared at the meeting that the 10 representatives who had sponsored legislation to remove Vice President John A. Burton '01 from office had no constitutional authority to do so.
As president, Driskell generally has the authority to interpret the council's constitution.
But the council voted to overrule her by a vote of 34 to 22, scheduling impeachment proceedings for this Sunday.
Burton was not present at the meeting because his grandfather recently died, and he had returned home to be with his family.
The sponsors of the bill to remove him motioned that it be tabled until next week when they learned the reason for Burton's absence. The council unanimously approved the move.
The two articles of impeachment brought against Burton allege that he took buttons from the office of a student group without permission and that he provided false testimony to the council's Election Commission.
Over the weekend, several current and former council representatives--including former council Vice President Samuel C. Cohen '00--questioned the council's authority to remove a popularly elected vice president from office.
Citing Cohen's interpretation of the constitution, Driskell ruled, as the first order of business, that the articles of impeachment were not constitutional and should be dismissed.
After her ruling, John P. Marshall '01, one of the sponsors of the legislation to remove Burton from office, motioned for the council to overrule her decision.
Council members on both sides of the debate agreed that the wording of the council's constitution was ambiguous.
The constitution outlines two methods for removing a representative from office: a two-thirds vote of the council following a petition signed by 10 council members, or a campus-wide referendum with two-thirds of the student body calling for removal from office, following a petition by 10 percent of the student body.
Driskell and her supporters argued the former method did not apply to popularly elected council officers, and that Burton could therefore be removed only by the student body at large.
But Marshall, joined by former President Noah Z. Seton '00, said that the constitution simply provided two separate methods of removal.
The council meeting brought out more members of the Harvard community than any other meeting this school year.
Driskell and her supporters sent e-mail messages to groups including the Black Men's Forum and the Black Students Association, along with other groups that endorsed her and Burton in the election, urging members to come to last night's meeting and support them.
Early in last night's meeting, Driskell asked all the visitors to stand up. More than a quarter of the room did so.
Included in this group were Associate Dean of the College for Extra-Curricular Activities David P. Illingworth '71, a reporter for The Boston Globe and S. Allen Counter, director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.
Counter declined to comment on the proceedings, calling the meeting "a student matter." He said he decided to attend when students asked if he would "observe the process."
Over the weekend, several Driskell-Burton supporters said they thought the impeachment might have racial overtones.
They noted that Driskell is the first black woman to serve as council president--a fact that Driskell also noted as the first line of her opening remarks.
"I think [race is] something that people look at. It's something very easy to see--that it's a bunch of conservative white males impeaching a black vice president," said Isaac J. Weiler '02, who is the secretary of the Black Men's Forum.
Former Vice President Kamil E. Redmond '00 noted that the attendance of non-council members at the meeting was "very, very, very highly minority."
Also at the meeting was Adam R. Russell-Taylor, the president of the Harvard chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Russell-Taylor is a first-year student at the Kennedy School of Government.
"I'm concerned that some motives behind the impeachment process are racially motivated," he said, qualifying his remark by saying he still does not know all of the facts.
Driskell said she had asked the NAACP to be at last night's meeting.
"I've contacted members of the NAACP," she said. "Neither John nor I have made any overt claims of racism."
While both Driskell and Burton are black, all of the council members who sponsored the bill to remove Burton from office are white.
Representatives who sponsored the bill to remove Burton described the suggestion that their behavior was racially motivated as "ridiculous."
"The petition to remove [Burton] was signed to investigate allegations of lying and stealing and cheating, not to investigate allegations of being black or white or Latino," said Todd E. Plants '01.
Kyle D. Hawkins '02, one of the bill's co-authors, said he has supported Burton in the past and denied that his actions have been racially motivated.
"I worked on [Burton's] campaign last year," he said. "I worked really hard."
Pforzheimer representative Rachel L. Brown '01 said she was dismayed at the council's behavior during the long fight over the constitutionality of the impeachment process, including frequent outbursts by council members on both sides.
"Members were laughing and talking while a select few were trying to figure out what was supposed to be happening," she said. "There seemed to be no respect for the procedure or for those involved."
After the impeachment was placed on the docket for next week's meeting, the council moved on to more conventional business, electing a secretary and treasurer for the coming semester.
Jean E. Huang '03 defeated current secretary James R. Griffin '02, with the support of many first-year voters. Should Burton be removed from office, Huang would replace him as vice president.
Huang said last night she has not yet decided if she supports removing Burton from office. She worked for the campaign of one of Driskell's opponents, Sterling P.A. Darling '01 in December's presidential election. Last night, she voted to overrule Driskell, agreeing the impeachment process was constitutional.
Though Driskell had called for the council to oust all sponsors of the impeachment bill from their executive board positions, Sterling P. A. Darling '01, who co-sponsored the impeachment legislation, was re-elected as council treasurer with no opposition.
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