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SSMU approves corporate food service for Shatner 103

Students decry flawed tender process, lack of consultation

A corporate food service will again occupy Shatner room 103 – currently leased by Caférama – for at least the next five years following a razor-thin vote at SSMU Council late last night.

In the 13-12 secret-ballot decision, Council approved the SSMU Operations Committee report that recommended the corporate vendor. Prior to the confidential Council session – which lasted until nearly 4 a.m. – about 50 students showed up for an hour-long public debate, largely to express their support for a student-run café and lambaste Council for a flawed tender process.

SSMU President Jake Itzkowitz said the vendor – who unofficially accepted the offer, but whose name will not be released until the deal is officially accepted, likely early next week – will still have to follow ethical guidelines set by various SSMU bodies, such as the Financial Ethics Research Committee.

“We got a lot of good proposals from the corporate services, but not very good ones from student-run initiatives, unfortunately,” Itzkowitz said.

Some students were angry that their first opportunity for public input was the same night Council was to decide the issue – and the second-last day of classes.

“Given the support of student-run operations, I don’t think [students’] considerations were taken into account,” said Tim Dowling, from Greening McGill and the Plate Club. Dowling presented a petition of over 800 signatures in support of a student-run initiative to Itzkowitz at the meeting.

Not all students in attendance supported establishing a student-run café. Alexandra Swann, former president of the Debating Union, argued that SSMU’s financial resources were already strained, and that the Society had other mandates to adhere to.

“The [General Assembly] motion that was passed about student space mentions nothing about food space,” she said, referring to a motion last fall mandating SSMU to prioritize student initiatives in the Shatner building.

In a public report released Monday, the Operations Committee estimated that a new student-run operation would incur fixed costs of roughly $285,800 in its first year and $93,800 thereafter.

But a 23-page counter-report – authored in four days by Arts Representative and incoming VP External Affairs Devin Alfaro, Senate Caucus Representative Erica Martin, and other students and councilors – challenged the validity of the Committee’s calculations.

The counter-report accuses the Operations Committee of “fail[ing] to do an accurate assessment of the actual cost of a student-run operation,” and projected that a student-run café could break even in four years if start-up and managerial costs were kept low.

It recommended that SSMU not make a decision on room 103 before consulting students and investigating more student-run options.

Trevor Chow-Fraser, U3 East Asian Religions & English Literature and one of the students involved in drafting the report, argued at Council that the Operations Committee ignored relevant café models.

“Have you looked at the models of any of the 21 student-run cafés at l’Université de Montréal or the seven at [l’Université de Québec À Montréal]?” he asked.

Jessica Dan, Chair of the Operations Committee and president of the Architecture Students’ Association (ASA), said using the ASA’s Architecture Café as an example of a successful student-run food service was not reasonable for SSMU.

“I personally do not feel that the model for the Architecture Café would be viable for the space below,” Dan said. She noted that the ASA did not have to pay insurance or taxes before McGill Ancillary Services took over the Café and began sharing responsibility for its operations.

Critics have alleged that Dan’s position as ASA President and chair of the committee was a conflict of interest, arguing that her involvement with the Architecture Café could lead her to slant the report against a student-run competitor.

Itzkowitz, who worked with Dan during the ASA’s negotiations with McGill on the Architecture Café issue, said she was originally hired to study improving Gert’s, but that she also had relevant experience for the room 103 decision.

“I know some people had some concerns about a conflict [of interest],” said Itzkowitz, adding that to address these concerns, Dan did not vote on the issue.

But Itzkowitz maintained that with popular support for a student-run food service, it was only a matter of time before one was installed in Shatner.

“I think we need to open a student-run food service in Gert’s,” he said. “Negotiations are currently stalled [with Al-Taïb, a food seller in Gert’s].”

But he warned that next year’s executive would have to figure out how SSMU would approach these issues in the future. The lease on the restaurants in the second-floor Shatner cafeteria is up in two years.

“We need to figure out what our operational priorities are,” he said. “We are a student union, but we are also a corporation…. Those mandates are fundamentally incompatible.”