By Cutter Kilgore
Shawn Chantaboune is no stranger to leadership roles. The Running Start student jump-started his young political career by serving on a legislative advisory council under Washington State’s lieutenant governor Brad Owen. Last year he served as an executive member of Whatcom Community College’s student council.
“You’re given a duty that you agree to, and therefore you carry out that duty to the fullest extent,” he said.
But at the end of the year, he decided not to return to council. Why? Chantaboune said many council members did not take their jobs seriously, and failed to fully communicate with their constituents, the students they were supposed to represent.
“I think that communication between constituents and council members is rare,” Chantaboune said. Council members are required to collect signatures and email addresses of 25 student constituents and agree to inform and represent those students responsibly. According to Chantaboune, this rarely happens.
“For most members, I think they either get their friends to sign up, or they go find someone around campus and say ‘Sign this; I promise I won’t contact you,’” he said.
“I feel it’s our duty as council members to be engaged with the student body,” Chantaboune said. “I just think that you can only do so much with this system because you have students here who are busy with jobs, children, school, etc. and they may not always care what’s going on. But do I think council members make an attempt to contact constituents? I really don’t think they take the time to email them.”
Jarred Tyson, who served as chair of clubs and outreach on student council during spring quarter, countered Chantaboune’s characterization of council. “For some people, constituents will be classmates or friends that you know,” he said. “We do take time during meetings to address constituents’ concerns.”
Kristopher Baier, the Director for Student Life, explained in a drafted statement that each student council member represents all students at Whatcom, not just their 25 constituents. “Yes, there might be a few that may not email as often, but it isn’t just about emailing students, it’s about connecting with many students and forming an informed decision on an issue,” he wrote.
Still not everyone agrees that the council system functions as it should. The current system “fails to uphold the views of democracy,” said Chantaboune. He said that many council members don’t take constituents’ concerns into account while voting in council sessions.
Tyson sees things differently. “You are representing the student body. There’s an obligation to hear [constituents’] voices since they signed your way onto council,” he said.
In stepping down from his executive position, Chantaboune also cited tensions within the council. He said he was not well-liked or even respected by his fellow council members and referred to student council as a club mentality.
“I feel like a lot of the conversations that happened in the back room of Syre were inappropriate, along the lines of sex, partying, underage drinking and drug use,” he said. “We all make mistakes, but I think they definitely crossed that boundary.”
“2011 was a really messy year,” said Tyson, referring to a series of unexpected early resignations from student council by executive members. “We had to pick up the pieces and really revitalize the council. Shawn would just retreat from that. None of us wronged him.”
Students sign an agreement before participating in council where they commit to professionalism, communication and honesty, among other things. Tyson said Chantaboune was extremely professional, and he doesn’t understand his feelings of exclusion.
Tyson implied that it was Chantaboune himself who sought isolation from other council members. “Shawn was an interesting person,” Tyson added. “At the start of the year it seemed like he was really interested in getting to know us. As the year progressed something happened along the lines that made him disinterested.
“Council tries to be as inclusive as possible with the student body,” said Tyson. “We represent students. We’re getting stuff done for the students. We did a pretty good job of keeping social and personal life separate.”
Chanaboune didn’t see it that way. “To me, I wanted to be taken seriously,” he said. “I do my job and I leave.”
And he meant it. Chantaboune will not be returning to student council in the fall, instead opting to split time between his full course load at Whatcom and business school at the Northwest Academy of Finance in Mount Vernon, Wash.
Chantaboune said elected members of any public office have an obligation to their constituents, one that extends beyond mere duties of the position.
“I think while you’re on campus you…have to make a differential between your personal life and your professional life. That doesn’t mean you have to be an A-plus student, it doesn’t mean you have to be a teacher’s pet or go picking up garbage on campus,” he said with a smile. “But I think that would be appropriate and nice.”