Yesterday, SSMU President Zach Newburgh hosted a town hall forum to discuss his proposal to abolish the General Assembly (GA), and replace it with an Annual General Meeting. The motion, which has prompted criticism over a lack of consultation – as well as the creation of numerous Facebook events – will be debated at the next SSMU Legislative Council on February 3. If Council passes the motion, it will become a referendum question in the online winter referendum period, open to all undergraduate students.
The meeting began with few participants, most of whom were members of the student media, but attendance increased as the meeting progressed, peaking at about forty students. The town hall was organized by Newburgh after articles in both The Daily and Tribune linked him with the motion to abolish the GA. For most of the town hall Newburgh limited the parameters of the town hall to the “strengths and weaknesses” of the current structure of the GA and the “merits of the referendum question” outlined on a blackboard in the room. When questioned about the positions of SSMU executives on the issue, Newburgh reiterated these guidelines, despite VP External Myriam Zaidi’s post on the Facebook event, which stated that “the current SSMU executive is divided on this question.”
Discussion opened with comments from Engineering Senator Andrew Doyle, who said that there are “far too few good resolutions that come forward at the GA.”
Councillor Zach Margolis noted that any reform will need to go “beyond tinkering and promoting it.”
The accessibility of GAs was another central point of discussion. “I wouldn’t be comfortable writing legislation,” explained Arts student Lily Schwarzbaum. “Discussion is what makes the student body not so apathetic.”
Other students echoed this sentiment, and the process of writing and submitting referendum questions was repeatedly labeled “opaque.” Speakers targeted Robert’s Rules, the system that governs GAs and Council meetings, as a key problem.
Doyle pointed out that “too many people who know Robert’s Rules use them to hijack the process.” Numerous students suggested the idea of GAs serving as a forum for debate, with voting moved to an online system.
Advertisement initiatives were another popular topic. VP Finance and Operations Nick Drew asserted that previous executives had failed to spend the entirety of their advertisement budget, resulting in a smaller budget for this year. He also emphasized the increased use of free advertisement through social media.
Notably absent from the vocal audience were student groups who often submit motions, including the Engineering Undergraduate Society and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR).
SPHR members authored the motion that created controversy at the Winter 2010 GA, which called for the creation of a social responsibility committee, and sparked debate about the inclusion of a phrase regarding the “unlawful occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
SPHR filed a Judicial Board complaint against Newburgh in March 2010. The complaint accused Newburgh of a conflict of interest, as he chaired the GA in his role as Speaker of Council while serving as president of the city-wide Jewish organization Hillel Montreal. The Judicial Board is the mechanism by which students can challenge the conduct of SSMU officials or bodies, according to the SSMU constitution. Newburgh was eventually cleared of all wrongdoing.
Newburgh was also heavily involved in the Winter 2009 GA, which caused controversy with a motion requesting that SSMU condemn bombings of educational institutions in Gaza. At the time, Newburgh organized the Facebook event, “SSMU: Vote Against the Condemnation of Israel,” and wrote to students that “the GA is not an appropriate forum to express external political issues.”
At Wednesday’s town hall, Newburgh took notes and summarized arguments for speakers as discussion progressed. Drew, another mover of the original resolution, typed minutes, which will be available publicly. “I think a lot of the arguments that were made were rehashing old arguments,” Newburgh said after the event, “but there were at least one or two comments that were very helpful, so I hope to use those comments to strengthen a reform of the GA.”