Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Yearly referenda would jeopardize much-needed funding

This article appears in the March 5-11 edition of The Gazette. It is my first time appearing as an Opinions Contributor. You can read my friend John Hillman's counterpoint, as well. He makes some very valid points.

Yearly referenda would jeopardize much-needed funding
Lisa Buchanan
Opinions Contributor

A handful of Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) student societies, including The Gazette, DalOUT, and Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group (NSPIRG), receive funding by way of a levy from all students. These levies were each approved by students through a referendum and are part of the fee each Dal student pays to the DSU. To ensure the societies are using their funding in the way students intended, each society should maintain the mandate it had when its referendum passed. But because, in some cases, years have passed since the referendum, the societies receiving money from the students aren’t always faithful to their original mandates. For example, this year a student union committee was created with the sole purpose of resolving inconsistencies as between a “Dal-PIRG” referendum question and the NSPIRG constitution. A mechanism must exist to keep these societies accountable and to ensure they are entitled to the money they receive.

To accomplish this, the student union’s ad-hoc referendum review committee is proposing all referendum-mandated societies be sent back to the polls at least every four years.

Unfortunately, this recommendation goes far beyond addressing the problem at hand.

Societies that do not remain loyal to their mandates as endorsed by students are the problem. This would not be a problem if there were an effective way of assessing society mandates from year to year to ensure compliance. There is currently no incentive for societies to keep their original mandates. The DSU’s vice-president (finance and operations) and board of operations are meant to review levies annually; this has not happened in the board’s first two years in operation. Alternately, any student can call for a referendum question targeting a specific levy; this should not change.

The problem can be addressed by only sending to referendum those societies that break their mandate and refuse to go back to it, rather than voting on all societies that are in compliance with their referendum-approved mandates.

Some argue that because of the four-year rotation of undergraduates, a re-occurring referendum will allow all students to vote on all levies during their time at Dal.

But there are other ways for students to reject particular levies. If students feel a levy has become unnecessary or irrelevant, they can start a referendum process to eliminate the levy in question.

With re-occurring, referenda, students could end up voting on the same levy more than once in their time at Dal. If a referendum fails and a society loses its funding, you will likely see that question back on the ballot in the next election, as the society attempts to re-establish its funding. If this happens, we will be faced with perpetual referenda, since levy questions are less likely to succeed when there are other money-related questions on the ballot.

Societies can be held accountable without having to run a referendum campaign every four years. All referendum-mandated societies must make an annual presentation to DSU council about their activities of the previous year. This could be a way to assess each society’s compliance with their mandate. If council finds a society has strayed from its original intentions, it can opt to send the levy to a referendum.

I know from experience that it takes a lot of time, energy and people to run a successful referendum campaign. Societies involved in a referendum rely on their membership to get the word out about their campaign. I have seen firsthand the peaks and troughs of society attendance and involvement. If the referendum review committee’s proposals are made reality, a society that has been meeting its mandate could lose its levy simply because not many of its members are attending regularly or because the executive members, who might be great at running their society, are not adept at running an effective publicity campaign.

To meet the timeline for changes to the DSU constitution, the committee met only once to discuss this portion of its mandate. If these proposals do not pass, further discussions should take place at the committee level. Consideration should be given to what other student unions do to hold their societies accountable. If and when this happens, referendum-mandated societies, most of whom do not have a representative on council, should be consulted.

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