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SSMU drops ball on prioritizing student space

As Caférama space opens up to bidding war, $20,000 slated for student space will likely go toward other initiatives

Despite several mandates calling for the Students’ Society to prioritize student space and operations this year, SSMU has for months sat on about $20,000 supposedly slated to meet this end.

Undergraduates voted in the fall General Assembly (GA) for SSMU to prioritize space distribution in the Shatner Building, requiring that any commercial activity in Shatner be either run by students or contracted to socially responsible companies.

They also voted in the fall referendum to increase the SSMU base fee by one dollar “for the purposes of improving student space” – bringing in an extra $19,800 this semester.

But as the expiration date for the lease for Shatner’s Caférama nears, and the SSMU Operations Committee prepares to finalize its recommendations, many are questioning whether the Society has done enough to prioritize student space in the process.

Making student space

Three student groups and four commercial initiatives are now vying for a three-year lease to replace Caférama.

So far SSMU has made no indication that it would prioritize student operations in the Shatner café space – a move that has troubled those that brought the motions and referendum questions.

“When we [students] mandate SSMU to do something, that needs to be something that they follow up on,” said Kira Page, a member of Grassroots Association for Student Power (GRASPé), which helped introduce the mandates.

Dave Schecter, SSMU Clubs & Services Representative to Council, said, given the GA motion and referendum question, SSMU should use the money for student-run operations.

“The context the fee was situated in… shows that students are pushing [SSMU] to use the money in a certain way,” Schecter said.

But the GA motion and referendum question are entangled with SSMU’s other mandates: to support clubs and services, and to ensure a level playing field for all bidders for the space, according to SSMU President Jake Itzkowitz.

“Balancing all of those mandates is not easy,” Itzkowitz said. “We’re not going to make everyone happy; that’s just not going to happen.”

Marcelle Kosman, SSMU VP Clubs & Services, explained that there has been increased pressure to use Caférama for student space, following the recent selection of smoothie vendor Liquid Nutrition for room 108, also on the first floor of Shatner.

“The feeling has been to cite 103 [the Caférama space] as an opportunity to make up for 108,” she said.

But under the strain of SSMU’s tight fiscal year, SSMU VP Finance & Operations Imad Barake identified financial pulls like Haven Books and Gert’s as potentially limiting further student operations.

“From a financial viewpoint, we cannot sustain appropriate levels of funding to our programs if we are to start a third student operation,” Barake said.

He maintained that supporting “student space” doesn’t require backing a student-run operation.

“It’s still student space whether it’s rented or it’s student-run,” he said.

Schecter argued, however, that SSMU executives and Council were forgetting their constituency.

“[SSMU] shouldn’t be telling students what to do, students should be telling [SSMU] what to do,” Schecter said.

What consultation?

But there has been a lack of consultation about the use of SSMU’s $20,000. The Space Fee Committee – an organization created in January to address the increased funding – has yet to meet with quorum.

The Committee’s mandate includes adhering to a procedural timeline of open meetings, and holding town halls and public consultations to discuss the Caférama proposals. The Committee has not held any public consultations.

Yahel Carmon, the Speaker of Council and the Chair of the Space Fee Committee, excused these shortcomings due to a sharp learning curve facing the committee.

“The timeline became difficult to adhere to and was unrealistic to accomplish,” Carmon said.

Itzkowitz said that any student group bidding on the Caférama space could have applied to use the $20,000. But without a consultation process, the claim seems tenuous. Further, SSMU did not spend money to advertise the fund’s existence, and only encouraged student groups to submit proposals to access the fee.

Because there were no bids to use the fund for student-run operations in room 103 of Shatner, the money will instead be delegated to improving common areas around campus.

The Space Fee Committee is currently reviewing four proposals for the $20,000 – from Gert’s, the Engineering Undergraduate Society, the Music Undergraduates Society, and space improvement for the fourth floor of Shatner. The Committee intends to make a recommendation to Council by the end of the semester – three weeks behind schedule.

Carmon acknowledged the possibility of supporting student-run initiatives in Shatner using the money.

“There was discussion about re-mandating how that $20,000 would be spent, and if it were to go to 103 as it relates to improving student-space,” Carmon said.

But the decision will ultimately be a job for next year’s executive and Council, he said.

“Executives of next year’s Council are going to have to rethink how they approach [the fee],” said Carmon.