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Campaigning for SSMU special referendum sees controversy

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Campaigning for the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Winter term Special Referendum is now in full swing, with the polling period fast approaching. This semester, SSMU Council has put forward two questions for consideration: One concerns a $5.50 increase in the mandatory SSMU base fee while the other proposes the creation of a seventh SSMU executive position, vice-president (VP) Operations. The two questions are independent of one another, allowing students to vote for one and against the other, if they so wish.

The special referendum involves a $5.50 increase in mandatory SSMU membership fees per semester. If passed, full-time students in the faculties of Arts, Architecture, Education, Engineering, Music, Management, Nursing, Physical & Occupational Therapy, Science, and Arts & Science will see their fees increased from $44.75 to $50.25 per term, and part-time students in the same faculties will see their fees increased from $22.44 to $27.94 per term. In the faculties of Law, Religious Studies, Dentistry, and Medicine, fees will rise from $33.56 to $39.06 per semester for full-time students, and from $16.83 to $22.33 per semester for part-time students. According to Zacheriah Houston, SSMU VP Finance and Operations, the funding from this increase will be invested in student services, and will extend the clubs fund by $25,000 as well as reduce the cost of the leases of Independent Student Groups (ISG) by 15 per cent.

“The $5.50 increase will generate approximately $245,000 in annual revenue,” Houston said. “This additional revenue will go primarily towards increasing SSMU’s support for student groups, growth in mental health programming, and a greater focus on space improvements in the SSMU Building.”

According to Houston, without the fee increase, the services and improvements that SSMU Council have promised will have to be revoked, and students will potentially face cuts  to services. 

“If the referendum question does not pass, […] we will need to make approximately $100,000 in cuts to the next year’s operating budget,” he said. “These cuts will primarily involve reduced salaries, which translates into fewer available student staff positions and cuts to full-time salaries. These staffing cuts would result in reduced service, including slower room booking approvals and funding disbursements, and the continuation of overburdened executives who are inaccessible and unable to fulfill their campaign commitments.”

According to Houston, an increase in fees now will be able to sustain the SSMU over the next decade. In his opinion, students will not need to expect further increases in membership fees if the $5.50 increase passes.

“The reason that the fee needs to be increased now is that the SSMU has grown dramatically over the last 10 years, and we now have reached a point where we need to slow the growth of the SSMU and ensure that its current operations are sustainable,” he explained. “I do not think the fee will need to be increased again for as long as the SSMU’s operations remain relatively constant; I imagine this will be the case for at least the next 10 years.”

However, some students feel that the proposed increase is unnecessary. A “Vote ‘NO’ to the SSMU Membership Fee Increase!” Facebook event page has been created in opposition to the “Yes” Campaign’s own Facebook event page. A thread organized by the SSMU executives on Reddit has received a number of negative comments on the subject of the proposed membership fee increase. Many express a lack of confidence in SSMU’s contributions to student life. After reading through the referendum, U2 Economics student Fanta Kamara voiced her reluctance to consent to the fee increase.

“I do not think it is needed,” said Kamara. “We pay about $44 per semester in fees already—not including the extra charges for SSMU groups and activities such as the SSMU Equity Fee, Environment Fee, University Centre Fee [….] I’m not complaining about those charges because I think it’s all worthy; I just don’t see the need for an extra $5.50 per semester.”

The second question in this term’s referendum calls for the establishment of a seventh SSMU executive position. If passed, the VP Finance and Operations position will be split into two separate positions. According to the motion regarding the restructuring of executive portfolios, SSMU executives work upwards of 85 hours each week, although they are only contracted to work a maximum of 70 hours per week. Jennifer Moh, U3 Economics and International Development Studies, sympathizes with the SSMU Executive Council.

“Seeing that SSMU executives work 85 hours a week, I would be for adding another [executive],” said Moh. “An average person works roughly 40 hours a week and SSMU execs are working double that.”

For SSMU President Kareem Ibrahim, the introduction of a new executive is the most efficient solution to alleviating the current executive’s workload and serving the students.

“With a team that burns out annually and is stretched very thin, each portfolio consistently features areas in which not enough energy [is] dedicated, simply due to the sheer volume to which they have all grown,” he said. “SSMU’s capacity to deliver adequate services and satisfy student needs depends on a well-functioning executive team which is neither overburdened, nor with poor mental or physical health.” 

According to Ibrahim, in the event that the proposal to create a new executive position is rejected, the alternative options that remain mainly involve cutting student services. 

“Services that our students have come to rely on will have to be reduced in volume, and wait times and costs associated with these services will likely increase,” he said. “Another option we could explore is to hire more student staff, but this is not a great solution either, as these staff need to be trained and actively supervised; both of these tasks require a great deal of people-power, something which the SSMU is lacking at the moment.”

Based on the proposed structure of executive portfolios, the changes that would be taking place if the referendum were passed are relatively subtle. Kamara questioned whether the current structure necessitated change.

“There is a lot of overlap between [the proposed] VP Operations and other positions, which makes me slightly skeptical of the need for it, but I believe that a new SSMU position should be created if it increases the efficiency of SSMU,” she said.

SSMU Council was mandated to create a “Yes” Committee to organize the campaign. To maintain the neutrality of SSMU on this referendum, the SSMU executives were not able to speak as members of the executive council at the same time as they answered questions about the campaign.

“The executive committee was mandated to create a ‘Yes’ Committee in order to ensure that the time we are spending on this campaign is legitimate,” said Ibrahim, on behalf of the “Yes” Committee. “We are not allowed to use SSMU resources for our campaign, which makes sense, as that would advantage us over any other referendum committee, and our time in the office is a SSMU resource, since we are paid using SSMU funds.”

The campaigning period continues through Jan. 29, and the polling period will be open from Jan. 27 until Jan. 29.

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