Incoming SSMU president Zach Newburgh will face a review by the Society’s Judicial Board after the McGill chapter of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) filed a petition contesting his impartiality as speaker of council at last month’s General Assembly (GA). The date of the review has yet to be announced.
SPHR filed the petition with the Judicial Board on March 17 after being granted an extension by the Board. The group has argued that Newburgh’s association with Hillel Montreal represented a conflict of interest, which compromised his position as speaker of the GA.
SPHR’s motion for the “Defense of Human Rights, Social Justice, and Environmental Protection,” which called on SSMU to investigate the University’s investments in companies complicit in human rights violations through the existing Financial Ethics Review Committee (FERC) or the creation of a new Corporate Social Responsibility Committee (CSR), passed. It also included two clauses in its introduction that targeted McGill’s ties to unethical practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – though they were later removed in an amendment before the motion was passed by the GA.
Discussion of the motion became heated when Newburgh was accused of a conflict of interest in his role as SSMU speaker since he is also president of Hillel Montreal and his roommate is president of Hillel McGill, which led the campaign against the motion.
“Zach Newburgh is a very capable and professional individual,” said Jamal Daoud, a member of SPHR-McGill, “and [it] came as a surprise that this sort of unprofessional conduct can transpire from someone who has his standing.
“He knew that there was definitely bias in the situation…and the logical thing to do, anticipating this conflict of interest, was to let the other SSMU speaker, Lauren Hudak, preside over the motion. But he refused, and did not utilize the outlets that were available for him to circumvent this conflict of interest.
“We’re not asking for any serious reprimand. We’re not asking for a re-vote. We are going to let the past be the past…. This is solely an issue of SSMU integrity, and this is solely an issue of a clear and transparent conflict of interest…. As a student group, in order to protect other student groups, we just want a safeguard and to set a precedent [of impartiality] for other SSMU speakers, and councillors,” said Daoud.
Newburgh was appointed speaker of council by the SSMU executive early this year, along with co-speaker Lauren Hudak, who facilitated the fall GA.
He received a copy of SPHR’s petition last Friday and said he was surprised by the Judicial Board’s move to review his conduct almost a month and a half after the GA. Newburgh responded to the allegations, saying that he acted “absolutely impartially” and that he did not make any decision alone.
“Every decision was made with my co-speaker of council with consultation. This is a step we take to prevent partiality,” said Newburgh.
“I think we did a good job making sure that the room was tolerable for everyone that was involved, [in] dealing with a room of 650 people who are frustrated, tired…lashing out against each other, and directing their anger against the speaker of council,” Newburgh added.
Newburgh viewed the petition as an attempt to humiliate him as the speaker of council, and called on the group to settle the matter before it became a source of division among the student community.
The petitioners have turned to decisions made by Newburgh during the GA as possible evidence of partiality toward those who opposed the motion.
“Robert’s Rules says that the preamble is amended last, and what [Newburgh] did was as soon as the motion was presented – which he also did not read in full, which is also a breach of procedure – he allowed it to go straight to a vote to strike the preamble clauses without debate and without amending any part of the motion itself…. This is a violation of Robert’s Rules,” said Daoud.
“[He interpreted] Robert’s Rules to fulfill his biases against this motion, and in order to fulfill the grievances of his constituency,” Daoud added. “We feel there was a very obvious procedural breach that resulted from a conflict of interest…and that SSMU is supposed to have safeguards against these occurrences.”
Newburgh said that the conflict of interest question had been raised and addressed by the SSMU executive prior to the GA.
“I had highlighted this particular issue with the president and the rest of the executive and they had stated that considering that I had displayed impartiality on a number of different resolutions that had come up for debate at the SSMU legislative council, resolutions that I had particular opinions about, stakes in…given [my previous] impartiality there was no reason to question whether I should be the one presiding over this particular resolution, or that meeting,” said Newburgh.
According to SSMU president Ivan Neilson, GA organizers received no indication that members wanted to reconsider Newburgh’s role as speaker.
“I think if people have specific concerns or if they perceive a situation to be particularly troublesome…it is within their right of Robert’s Rules to bring a motion to remove the chair. We received no such motion,” said Neilson.
He added, however, that he had full confidence in Newburgh’s ability to act impartially.
“Considering in [Newburgh’s] case that he was the president of Hillel Montreal, entirely separate from the McGill context…[and] separate from SSMU, his involvement was separate so we had confidence in his impartiality,” Neilson explained.
“I think every person has beliefs and that every person has opinions, but you are either impartial or you aren’t. Throughout the entire interviews [Newburgh and Hudak] showed they were capable of that.”
Daoud agreed with Neilson’s view that the position of speaker should not be withheld from Newburgh on account of his other affiliations since many students are involved with organizations and groups on and off campus. He stressed, however, that individuals selected to such positions should have the foresight to acknowledge potential sources of conflict and to step down when necessary.
“The only thing that we are trying to remedy [through the petition] is future occurrences of the same nature. We don’t want any student on campus, or any group on campus, to feel marginalized or to feel that SSMU possesses a partial stance against them,” said Daoud.
“In [Newburgh’s] capacity as incoming SSMU president he has a responsibility to represent the student body, and this responsibility is a serious [one] because he is supposed to uphold the integrity of the SSMU…. Without that integrity people will lose their trust in their elected student members,” he added.