SSMU ‘outreach’ on building fee yet another abdication of duty

“Whereas, without this fee the SSMU would have to cut services to students in order to afford the rent and utilities payments to McGill”

This line, snugly hidden within one of the 11 questions posed by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Winter  2014 referendum and jostling for voter attention, was probably read by a few of the two-thousand some students who voted against both parts of the “Implementation of the University Center Building Fee.” It’s doubtful that voters took it seriously.

The two-part question—which sought to institute a fee of $6.08 per semester and index said fee to a 5.6 per cent annual increase until 2021—was intended to raise the money needed to pay the increases in the newly negotiated lease with McGill for use of the SSMU building. It was also the only referendum question to fail. Judging by the thoughts expressed by various SSMU executives before and after the results were revealed, this question was the most important of those that were before the voters.

Funny that no one noticed.

The alleged necessity of this fee stems from the new lease terms that SSMU recently concluded negotiating with McGill. The new terms include an increase in the rent from $126,900 to $165,000 over 10 years, as well as charges for the utilities costs for the building—previously gratis—to the tune of $100,000 per year, subject to annual inflation-related increases. SSMU is also on the hook for the retroactive payment of the three years during which this agreement was being negotiated.

When looking at the terms in front of students now, it is dubious how well SSMU held on to any sort of negotiating position vis-a-vis McGill. What is clear is that SSMU, as it stands, does not have the money to pay these new rates without substantial changes to its budget. The global budget for this Fall was already close to a deficit, factoring in an estimate as to the increase in the building’s rent. When this newspaper endorsed the fee referendum, we did so expressing reservations, “as to the lack of concrete or even semi-tangible context as to how SSMU will re-allocate funds in the event of a “No” vote.”  It now seems that there was no plan at all.

Considering then, how necessary the new infusion of cash promised by the referendum was to the continued functioning of SSMU, there was a substantial lack of awareness generated on the subject. Outside of a few quotes scattered throughout student media pieces on the upcoming elections, there was no outreach from SSMU to students expressing the importance of this fee. There was no “Yes” committee, and thus, no social media outreach, no posters, and doubtless little organizing at the grassroots level. What makes the lack of effort here even more galling is that there seems to be a sense that the mess SSMU finds itself here is solely, or even mostly, the fault of the students. There certainly is something to be said for the contention that students can’t be bothered to care for student politics—even in the cases when it genuinely matters. However, there is also a certain level of chutzpah required to place a critical—and substantial—fee increase before students without explaining why they should care, then excoriating the irresponsibility  of these students (the people SSMU ostensibly represents) when they balk at an extra $12 per year charge.

Doubly disheartening is the fact that this fee referendum is not the first time this kind of negligence on the part of the SSMU executive has happened this year. Last Fall, the SSMU General Assembly (GA) was attended by a mere 50 students, not even meeting the already exceptionally low bar of 100 students for quorum. Under-attended GAs are part and parcel of McGill student politics, but even compared to that baseline, the SSMU executive put little effort into raising awareness of the forum, disregarding its own mandate. As we editorialized under a similar headline at the time, “The passivity demonstrated by the executive towards involving students in the political process is troubling [and] indicative of a disregard for the input of the membership at large.” The inability to meet quorum also left SSMU unable to appoint a Board of Directors (BoD) for this year, which rendered it unable to update its investment portfolio and put the renewal of its license to operate Gerts in jeopardy.

Lo and behold, a special GA was convened, and an actual effort at outreach was made. Quorum was reached and maintained, and SSMU had a BoD. The only problem: time and resources were wasted by not doing it right the first time.

How the SSMU manages to wriggle out of the corner it has painted itself into here remains to be seen. We can only hope that the incoming executives take into account the lessons of this situation; actually telling students why their votes matter before they happen would be a good start.

4 Comments

  1. Can we call for a referendum in cutting salaries and benefits by half?

  2. I don’t understand the legality of the nature but posing the same question back to referendum seems like an unsuitable response. It failed, yes it was important and yes SSMU failed at promoting it, even though the council and execs were in favour of the new fee, but point is it failed. Can you legitimately ask a question a second time?

    • Right. Obviously if this fee was going to be contentious, SSMU should have instead had an alternative back-up fee in mind; something solely to cover the immediate budget deficit incurred by this one specific issue.

      Then, after the initial long-term fee failed to pass referendum, they could just run another referendum for this *other* fee instead, and just rely on all the clubs and student groups that particularly use that space to spearhead the campaign to success.

      Right?

  3. Secondly, it is stated, “without this fee the SSMU would have to cut services to students in order to afford the rent and utilities payments to McGill”. We clearly saw there was no contingency to plan for this. However, scaring students into paying for a fee by saying “services” are going to be cut is so utterly invalid. What do services mean? Does it mean paying frosh coordinators? Does it mean the numerous committees that are dear and provide benefits to students? Does it mean an entire fund of sorts (e.g. Clubs fund)? Does it mean taking away the dear campus bar students go to for a relaxing time with friends?

    Or, does it simply mean cutting the fat from the budget? Does it mean increasing Gerts drink prices so they’re closer to being on par with other bars – is that a service that we NEED?

    I would argue that without a clear idea of what would be cut, the SSMU cannot and should not be arguing to institute a fee that would cover its extra building costs, as valid and important as the building is to students. Ultimately, those are operational costs that need to come out of a regular operating budget of the society, one that could be amended by increasing the SSMU base fee and not something that needs it’s separate fee.

    However, given that it seems likely this second referendum will happen at some point, without a legitimate definition or idea of what “services” could potentially and *realistically* be cut, I would not be comfortable voting on this question. Because to me, that is THE reason for this fee and if I’m not understanding what it means, I should not be voting on it.

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