Bar patrons, actors volunteer time to ensure democratic process at DSU general meeting
If you had browsed the Dalhousie Student Union’s Twitter and Facebook pages this morning for updates on the activities of your elected union representatives, you’d learn that the Grawood had a fish and chips special on Friday.
You would not have learned the DSU amended their constitution last week.
You would not have learned that a large percentage of students who voted for the amendment were recruited at the last minute from the Grawood and a nearby rehearsal of Alice in Wonderland: The Pantomime, or how they were not actually read the amendment they were voting on before they voted.
But on Thursday, a vote made by approximately 80 DSU members at a general meeting means there will be one more position to vote for in this year’s DSU elections – the Vice President (Finance and Operations) [VPFO].
Until now, the VPFO was the only member of the DSU executive body appointed by council instead of voted in through an election.
The VPFO is responsible for overseeing the DSU’s budget of over $2,600,000, and now it will be up to the entire DSU body to decide who should have this position.
To understand how approximately 0.4 per cent of all students represented by the DSU came to change the constitution in a couple hours, there are some points worth considering.
1. The general meeting had no real agenda
No agenda had been publically posted for the meeting.
At the beginning of the meeting, William Coney, chair of the Dalhousie Arts and Social Sciences Society (DASSS), asked DSU chair Andrew Christofi why no agenda had been posted online, but just a single item – the motion to be voted on.
Christofi said the agenda was already posted to the DSU’s website. Coney said the item was posted, but not the actual agenda. Christofi said that because there was only one item on the agenda, an agenda did not need to be posted.
“It doesn’t reflect very well to just post an item without an actual showing of process,” said Coney.
“I don’t really know what your complaint is,” said Christofi. “The only item on the agenda is the only thing that was on the website.”
2. But there kind of was an agenda
The agenda for the previous night’s DSU council meeting said there would be three discussion items at the general meeting:
Divestment: Should the Union divest its investments from the fossil fuel industry? What are the implications?
Levy Question Policy: Is there a need for one? Should there be guidelines as to how levy questions are approved to be on the ballot?
Society Elections: Should Society Elections be centralized with DSU general elections? What role/support should the DSU provide in Society Elections?
These discussion items were not mentioned anywhere on DSU.ca. They were only present in the package emailed to members of council, which was not and has not been posted online for general members. The Levy Question Policy and Society Elections were not discussed at all at the general meeting.
3. Within 30 days, the DSU will vote on whether they should divest from fossil fuels
At the beginning of the meeting, Divest Dal representative Jeremy Banks requested that a discussion of divestment be added to the agenda. He asked that this discussion be moved to the top of the agenda, because he came with a lot of people from an Environment, Sustainability and Society lecture and they didn’t have much time.
After a quick vote, the motion to move discussion of divestment to the top of the agenda passed.
Banks listed reasons why the DSU should divest its endowment of investments in fossil fuels. He asked those in the room who agreed with him to raise their hands as a quick survey, and nearly everyone in the room raised their hand.
Councillor JD Hutton, a Board of Governors representative, came to the mic and said he has worked with Divest Dal for over a year. He clarified the question for council tonight was whether the DSU should divest its endowment of $1,600,000 of fossil fuels, and not whether Dalhousie should.
After Hutton and a few other attendees spoke in favour of the DSU divesting from fossil fuels, councillor Kaitlynn Lowe, president of the Dalhousie Arts and Social Sciences Society, asked the executive for an ideal timeline for the DSU to commit to divesting.
DSU president Ramz Aziz said that for the DSU to make the commitment to divest its endowment of fossil fuels, their policy statement would need to be edited within the next week.
He said if council can make a decision, it should be a “no-brainer” at the Nov. 5 meeting of DSU council.
Once the topic switched to a debate on whether the VPFO position should be elected, a couple dozen attendees left, presumably to return to their lecture.
4. An assistant to the DSU president is being hired; the DSU only advertised the job opening to an audience of 50
During the discussion of divestment, Aziz has announced the DSU’s intention to hire a divestment coordinator to help edit their investment policy.
He said the position would be “put up within a couple weeks” and encouraged audience members to apply if they had relevant experience. Aziz said he hopes Divest Dal would help edit the policy.
The DSU currently has a job posting that may be found online for an “Executive Project Commissioner”, which lists the “DSU Divestment Strategy” as a project the successful applicant may be asked to work on. The application period for the job that comes with a remuneration of $1,000 expires on Oct. 29.
The DSU has not promoted this position at all through their presence on Facebook or Twitter – there are only links to the hiring page buried on DSU.ca. It is unclear whether this is the “divestment coordinator” position Aziz has referred to.
5. Nearly an hour of debate and discussion was held without enough students present to vote
The DSU had promoted the meeting 19 times on Twitter since it was announced on Oct. 3 and six times on Facebook, where 261 people were invited to the meeting through an event page.
The DSU dispatch appearing on page two of issue 147-7 of the Gazette advertised the AGM, and posters were up in the Student Union Building for weeks.
And though this point was not advertised, over a dozen boxes of free pizza were present – yet when the debate for the motion was held, the room’s attendance wavered between approximately 40 to 60 students, lower than the attendance at any of the DSU’s AGMs last year. Several DSU councillors did not show up.
So when it was time to debate whether the VPFO should be elected instead of appointed, the room had not yet met quorum – the minimum number of union members present for a vote to be held, which is 75 for a general meeting.
So, the meeting turned into a forum discussion. Christofi read the complete text of the amendment. Various councillors and students expressed their conflicting stances on the amendment.
But since quorum was not yet reached, this means the 40 minutes of debate were unheard by a large percentage of those who ended up voting on the motion.
Councillor Hutton, who originally put forward the motion that led to the general meeting, explained his intentions for the motion.He said the principles reflected in his motion include promoting student democracy and promoting accountability and transparency.
He explained that the VPFO is currently the only executive position of the DSU appointed by council members instead of elected.
“So, this is what we do instead of an election. A crew of insiders that pick who they think is the best, and then those four people on the hiring committee put it to 25 people-ish,” said Hutton, “and then that’s how you decide to spend $35,000 for the year (the approximate annual salary of the VPFO). I think we can do better.”
Hutton said the position was currently appointed instead of elected because it should be a position that guarantees technical rigor and experience. He said the current process does not guarantee technical rigor.
After naming more reasons, Hutton said it comes down to the fact that not electing the VPFO is highly undemocratic and “really, really worrying.” He said not electing the VPFO contributes to the idea the DSU is an elitist clique that is not accountable to students.
Councillor Hannah Klug, president of the Dalhousie Undergraduate Engineering Society, expressed her reasons for not supporting the amendment. She cited the low turnout of the meeting as an example that students are not interested in having a vote.
“I think if you put this to a general election, it’s very likely that someone who has more personal skills and is well-spoken and can do a very good campaign will get voted, rather than someone who has the background necessary for this position,” said Klug.
“I also think that a lot of this discussion has been about, you want to have a say in your budget and you want to be able to say who the VP Finance is,” she said. “I think that just because you don’t elect your Vice President Finance doesn’t mean you don’t have any say in where your money goes. The Vice President Finance doesn’t independently make all monetary decisions in the union.”
Mahbubur Rahman, the current VPFO, explained the process by which he got his job. He said while he enjoys his job, it makes more sense for his position to be elected by the general membership.
Most student unions at universities of a comparable size elect their member in charge of finance, and this contributed to Rahman’s belief that the VPFO should be elected. He also addressed Klug’s earlier statements.
“I think someone talked about a good ability at convincing people, having a good campaign,” said Rahman. “And I know it’s more easy to convince 40 people rather than convincing 18,000 people. Because I did it.”
6. Voters were brought in from the Grawood and a nearby play rehearsal
During the debate period, some meeting attendees went downstairs to the Grawood campus bar and had an intermission called at the ongoing open mic. Students enjoying the show were brought upstairs so the meeting could reach quorum.
After the debate, a 15-minute recess was called. Talk spread among the room – a rumour popped up that some theatre students were in the Arts Centre rehearsing for Alice in Wonderland: The Pantomime.
Surely enough, a whole cast of new recruits came into the room by the time the recess was over.
7. The new recruits voted after seeing the original debate hugely summarized
After the recess, Christofi asked those who were ineligible to vote to stand at the side of the room and for everyone else to sit. He counted 77 people sitting.
Applause occurred because quorum was reached, and councillor Lowe asked to make a motion that would quickly summarize the earlier debate.
“I would like to make a motion that JD, the mover of the motion, make a summary, no more than three minutes in length about the discussion that took place, the motion itself,” said Lowe.
“And then I’d like a chance for at least three comments, no more than a minute to a minute-and-a-half each, to sum up the whole discussion that took place, and then have a motion to vote.”
Christofi asked if anyone else had suggestions on how to handle the debate, and no one responded. He then explained how council currently elects the VPFO position and that a motion was being presented to change that.
Councillor Klug expressed her wish to return to a debate.
“So I really appreciate you guys coming here since we didn’t have quorum, but I kind of have an issue with you guys voting even though you weren’t here for the debate,” said Klug to the audience. “Because we just had a two-hour meeting.”
Christofi ruled that rather than return to a debate period, it was within proper procedure to hold a vote to give Hutton three minutes to speak and give then three other speakers up to ninety seconds.
Councillor Hutton summarized his earlier speech in three minutes, and three other students expressed mixed feelings about the motion.
8. The actual amendments to be voted on were not read to all voters
The final question asked before the motion was voted on, in full: “I’ll ask anyone who wishes in favour of voting for the amendment for the election of the VPFO to raise their hands.”
The actual text of the constitutional amendment to be made was not read to the students who showed up after the debate. The text of the amendment was projected on a screen at the front of the room in a small font, but the actual amendment being voted on was not examined at any length in front of the crowd that voted on it.
The vote passed with fewer than ten abstentions or dissenting votes.
William Coney tweeted that he agreed with the motion in spirit, but voted against it because of the process.
9. Not all DSU executives were present for the entire meeting
Danny Shanahan, Vice President (Student Life), left the meeting shortly before the vote.
Shortly after the 1:40:14 mark in the livestreamed video of the meeting, Shanahan may be seen leaving the room. This is approximately nine minutes before the vote was held, and fifty minutes before the meeting was concluded.
Shanahan did not return to the room for the remainder of the meeting. After the vote was held, a question and answer period was held where audience members could speak with the DSU executive body. Shanahan was the only DSU executive unable to participate in the discussions.
When asked by email whether he stayed for the vote, how he voted and why he was not able to stay for the question period, Shanahan responded in an email to the Gazette: “I was unable to attend the question period as I had a previous engagement that I was quite late for.”
10. After the vote, execs addressed the notion that council isn’t working
At a discussion period after the vote, councillor Ali Calladine, a Senate Representative, asked what the DSU executives what people still present at the meeting could to support the DSU in reaching out to engage the entire Dalhousie student body.
“The first thing that came to my mind when you made that comment, Ali, is – ‘Oh, we should have a working group of people to come together and talk about all the things that are going on, and promote that.’ Oh wait, we do – it’s a council,” answered Jennifer Nowoselski, Vice President (Internal).
“And if every council member would have brought two pet members out to the general meeting, we would have had enough people here for quorum. We do have small working groups through council. For some reason, it’s not working, and I’m not suggesting that that’s the fault of the council members,” said Nowoselski.
“But there’s something within that that it could be really strong, and it isn’t, and I think it’s really worth analyzing that structure and figuring out why that’s not working.”
11. The DSU announced the meeting’s results after four days
The DSU only addressed the amendments to their constitution through their social media channels and DSU.ca at noon on Oct. 27, four days after the meeting.
In the time elapsed between the meeting’s end and their announcement of the results, they did share the word about a fish and chips special at the Grawood and the Red Bull Golden Goal Soccer Tournament.
The DSU’s policy and communications coordinator, Lindsay Dowling, has been on leave since Oct. 10. She will remain on leave until Nov. 10, according to the automatic response generated by the DSU policy coordinator email account.