After an hour and a half of debate, Students’ Council postponed the vote approving the referendum question for the capital plan to an emergency meeting set to take place later this week.
The proposed student spaces levy, which would cost students $18 in the 2019-20 academic year, doubling annually until it reaches $54 by 2021-22, would be used to renew spaces that are not funded by government sources. Due to the university’s projected $1 billion deferred maintenance bill, Students’ Union vice-president (operations and finance) Emma Ripka argued in a presentation to council that the University of Alberta does not have the time or capital to spend on renewing non-academic spaces.
The fee was put forward to council on January 29 in order to approve the referendum question so that it could be placed on the election ballot during Students’ Union elections in March, as last week’s council meeting went overtime. Council did not end up passing any motion regarding the proposed levy. Instead, they will meet before Sunday, February 3, to decide the fate of the proposal.
Over the course of an hour and a half of debate, student councillors expressed concern over the lack of information available to them before making a decision, wanted details of consultations undertaken with students, and whether breaking bylaws would be a better solution than postponing a vote on the proposal.
Councillors say there isn’t enough information to make a decision
One aspect of the debate was around information that was available to councillors before the vote on the referendum question.
Native studies councillor Nathan Sunday brought up that a report on the Students’ Union’s consultations with faculty associations, which was done in preparation of the referendum question, had not been released to councillors to review before the vote.
The report, which was supposed to be released in February, would detail more information about the levy, such as outlining how they came up with the question, to show the consultation that was done with students, and the process through which it will be administered.
“How can the vice-president (operations and finance) justify Students’ Council voting on this motion today without first receiving this report and being given time to review its contents?” Sunday asked via the live stream.
“The timing is not ideal,” Ripka replied, but said that due to bylaw regulations, the referendum question needed to be approved this week.
Later in the evening, Sunday said it is the responsibility of councillors to “vote after knowing the facts, not before,” adding that to push this motion through due to time constraints without the report being published is “unacceptable… facetious, and representative of bad governance.”
Arts councillor Rowan Ley also voiced his concern about the issues raised by Sunday, saying that the report should be shared in council.
The same issue of information, especially about the effect on smaller faculties, was also brought up by Campus Saint-Jean councillor Tahra Haddouche.
“Students’ Council does not have enough info on how small facilities will have the same voice as larger faculties,” she said via live stream.
Later, when Ripka mentioned that discussions on the capital plan have been occurring since September 4, arts councillor Mpoe Mogale and councillor Haddouche said their questions had not been addressed during the process of discussing the levy in council.
“We’ve had questions the entire time, but when it’s brought up, there are never solid answers,” Haddouche said.
Science councillor Katherine Belcourt also brought up the lack of information provided to council about the levy.
“I still don’t feel like I totally understand it,” she said. “We don’t have all of the facts.”
By the end of the meeting, Ripka said the report would be released on Friday so that councillors would have time to look over it before the vote.
Concerns over a lack of student consultation
Councillors were also concerned about the consultation process when creating the referendum question, especially since this information was supposed to be part of the report on the question that has yet to be released.
Councillor Mogale said the consultation they did with their constituents showed that they were against the motion. Mogale also suggested that the survey should be sent to students in general, but that was not implemented.
“I think we’re just repeating the same mistake again here in not consulting the broader, general students,” Mogale said, referencing the Student Events Initiative referendum that failed last year.
Ripka said consultations had taken place with faculty associations beginning in October with the Council of Faculty Associations Senior Board, as well as consultation with individual faculty associations, and that the feedback they received couldn’t be categorized as either a yes or no. Instead, Ripka said the associations had questions about the definitions of student spaces and the processes through which projects will be decided.
“Overall, there was support,” Ripka said. “Each individual within the faculty association had really good questions, had some concerns, but we’ve taken those concerns and then come up with these processes. But overall, I don’t think there was any faculty association that [said] we would never pay for this.”
Sunday also voiced his uncertainty over the information provided to students about the levy by the Students’ Union.
“I am not confident that the SU will provide students with adequate information on this levy,” he said over live stream.
There were also concerns about the inability for students to opt out of the fee, which was brought up by engineering councillor Amlan Bose, as well as the Students’ Union’s ability to get rid of the levy in the future, raised by councillors Belcourt and Cutarm.
Marc Dumouchel, general manager of the Students’ Union, addressed questions about the process for removing the levy in the future, saying that council can get rid of the fee at any point by lowering it as debts due to construction costs are being paid off.
“There’s nothing stopping council from doing that,” he said.
However, Dumouchel said
Decision postponed to an “indeterminate date”
After concerns over the availability of information were raised and whether the wording of the referendum question was clear enough, Council decided to postpone proceedings on the matter to an “indeterminate date and time,” but before midnight on February 3.
Ley said he was concerned that the wording of the referendum was “too confusing” since students had to do the math themselves to see how much they would pay after the Fall 2019 semester.
“I would like to see clear dollar amounts in the question so that students can see the money they will be paying,” he said.
Council accepted an amendment to the referendum wording detailing that students would pay $9 in Fall 2019, up to a maximum of $18 in Fall 2020 and $27 in Fall 2021. This amendment was then replaced with a series of further amendments. A Google document was circulated among councillors where further variations were made to the proposed referendum question.
Councillors questioned Ripka why the wording mentioned that students would pay up to an $18 or $27. Ripka responded that the Students’ Union is exploring opportunities for donations from alumni or other organizations to be put towards lowering the portion students pay toward the levy.
“We want to make the cost students have to pay out of pocket as small as possible,” Ripka said. “Getting donors is not guaranteed… so the question reflects that with the wording.”
Sunday was concerned that the potential for donors was not brought before council prior to this meeting.
Ripka responded that this is something the Students’ Union began exploring with the Student Events Initiative last year. She added that any way for the SU to lower the cost of the levy for students is something they must consider.
Councillors argued that with all the new information and debate around the wording of the referendum question, more time was needed before they could put it to a vote.
Breaking bylaws considered by council
Council considered breaking Students’ Union bylaws in order to have more time to consider the student spaces levy. According to bylaw 2205, all referendum questions need to be filed to the SU elections chief returning officer 30 days before the first voting day on March 6.
Vice-president (academic) Akanksha Bhatnagar said breaking bylaw in this instance was acceptable. She added that getting more time to consult constituents or ensuring the best possible wording of the referendum question were “reasonable” grounds to justify breaking bylaws.
“It is not the worst thing in the world to break a bylaw,” Bhatnagar said. “We can justify why we broke it.”
Council Speaker Jonathan Barraclough said council would not face any repercussions if bylaws were broken. However, Students’ Union president Reed Larsen disagreed.
“I will challenge the speaker on this,” Larsen said. “We all take oaths of offices to uphold the rules of office… My suggestion is to take care to observe all bylaws.”
Further, Ripka said here are real consequences if council breaks bylaw. According to her, the independent judicial branch of the SU — the Discipline, Interpretation, and Enforcement (DIE) Board — could take the referendum question off the election ballot over violating bylaws.
“That is the last thing we want,” she said.