Referendum period opens with ballot on CKUT and QPIRG

The fall referendum campaign period opens this week, and features two questions on whether QPIRG McGill and CKUT’s student fees should cease to be opt-outable via the Minerva online system and instead be refundable directly though each organization. Students will be able to vote on the questions from Nov 4-10.

Every five years, the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG) and CKUT,  the official campus-community radio station, hold referenda in which the student body votes on the organizations’ existence. A ‘yes’ vote enables the groups to renew their Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) with the administration, a document that governs each group’s relationship with the administration. Both MoAs will expire in June 2012.  

Fee levy refunds were available through each individual group until fall 2007, when McGill moved opt­—outs online to Minerva. That same fall, the General Asembly voted to reinstitue the old system and in winter 2008, students passed a referendum mandating SSMU to lobby for an end to the Minerva opt-out system. The administration did not change the system either time.

Since the system changed, there has been a marked increase in opt—out rates for all opt-outable organizations, with a divergence of only 0.5 to 1.5 per cent across the different student groups. This semester, several campus organizations, including QPIRG and CKUT, mounted their own campaign in response to the opt-out campaign called “Our Campus, Our Community” to raise awareness of projects funded with student fees.

Drain on the organization

Anna Malla, QPIRG’s internal coordinator, explained that the primary reason for the referendum question was the current system’s drain on QPIRG’s human resources.

“It’s very difficult when [the opt-out campaign is] not held accountable by any rules or standards, but QPIRG obviously as an organization is, so one of the primary reasons is that it’s a huge drain on our human resources, on our board and staff,” Malla said. “A lot of time and energy is spent, is misspent in my opinion, in defending ourselves against the kind of attacks that are just baseless and against misinformation instead of focusing on the really great work that we do on campus.”

Caitlin Manicom, CKUT funding and outreach co-ordinator, explained that the reasons for CKUT’s referendum are very similar to QPIRG’s.

“We simply cannot continue to exist with this type of blanket opting out,” Manicom said. “It’s a huge, huge drain on us, not only financially but also organizationally. When you have unregulated opt-out campaigns happening on campus, they encourage students to opt out regardless and so they blanket opt out of a number of different organizations without learning anything about them.”

 Last year, the fee levy for QPIRG was approximately $186,000 before opt-outs and $156,000 after. This year’s projected values are $190,000 before and $157,000 after, Malla said. Similarly, CKUT’s projected budget for will be $16,020 less than it would be without online opt outs. Last year, its operating budget was decreased by $27,191 after opt-outs, out of a budget of $422,572. CKUT’s budget is much larger than QPIRG’s due to its sponsors and funding drives.

If QPIRG and CKUT were allowed to administer their own opt-outs, students would have to go over to the groups’ individual offices to receive their refund. Manicom said that CKUT also intends to set up a table in the SSMU building during the refund period so students can get a refund on campus in addition to CKUT.

Question clarity

Some students believe that the wording of the referenda question may pose some problems for voters. Stephen David, U3 mining engineering, noted that the question combines two very different issues.

“I don’t support or oppose either [QPIRG or CKUT], but the problem is they’re forcing people to accept their methodology regarding the opt-out process,” David said. “I [kind of] feel like I’m being screwed. If you want them to continue to receive funding, you have to accept the terms of their opt-out scheme. If you don’t want to fund them, they’ve made your life harder.”

When asked why the two questions were combined, Malla pointed again to the drain in resources arising from the current system.

“Our very existence is at stake with the current system, and that is both in terms of our human resources at QPIRG as well as in terms of not being able to predict our finances for the year,” Malla said. “We actually will not be able to continue to exist under the current system, so it is an existence question.”

The wording of the question may pose challenges to QPIRG and CKUT with the administration. Deputy Provost of Student Life and Learning Morton Mendelson declined to answer whether the university would return the opt-out  system to the 2007 system if the referenda passed, calling the situation “hypothetical.” Nevertheless, he stressed the need for referendum questions to be clear and to effectively reflect student opinions.

“We have asked student groups going to referendum for confirmation that students approve of their continuation to do so with a question that is clear and to th
e point.  A confusing question does not provide a clear answer,” Mendelson wrote in an email to the Tribune. “We have not been able to implement some fee referenda when the questions have been incomplete or ambiguous.”

A question of existence

Malla did not disclose QPIRG’s options in the case that the majority of students vote no to the referendum question, although she did say that becoming part of SSMU is not an option.

“This is a question that we’ll have to address after the results of the referendum,” Malla said. “But if we don’t get a ‘yes’ vote we will no longer receive undergraduate student funding … so essentially it would mean that our organization would not exist.”

A “no” vote for CKUT would reduce the organization’s funding by over a third and may also cause the radio station to lose its location and broadcast license, Manicom said. CKUT is not looking to continue as a club under SSMU.

 “[CKUT occupies] two floors of the building that we exist in, a very large space, [with] over 300 volunteers … it is a campus-community radio station,” Manicom said. “I don’t think it’d make sense to be a club under SSMU. And I don’t think it would be financially feasible either.”

SSMU President Maggie Knight commented that an end to CKUT and QPIRG would have a notable effect on student life.

“If CKUT ceased to exist, that would be a huge blow to the Montreal community and a lot of students on campus that are very actively involved in radio production. We don’t have a journalism school … CKUT is the McGill school of radio in its own way,” Knight said. “As far as QPIRG goes … they have a lot of groups involved in a lot of causes, [and] many are dear to the heart of lots of students. It’s not only activism based on campus but also activism linked to the direct community.”

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