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CKUT and QPIRG face existence referenda for fee renewal and re-instated in-person opt-outs

Organizations’ campus opposition served notice for illegal ‘no’ campaigning

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Voting opened last Friday on the existence referenda for campus-community radio station CKUT 90.3FM and QPIRG-McGill. The two organizations are calling for the renewal of their student fee and a move from online to in-person opt-outs.

Both organizations have tied their referenda questions, which ask for a renewal of student fees ($3.75 per semester for QPIRG and $4 per semester for CKUT), to a question asking to replace the online opt-out system with an internally-run alternative. The questions must pass – proving continued student support for their existence – in order to begin MoA negotiations with McGill.

MoA negotiations include lease renewals, which concern QPIRG and CKUT’s shared space, a building on the corner of University and Pins.

Adam Wheeler, co-chair of the QPIRG ‘yes’ committee, said that online opt-outs in recent years have had such a severe impact on the organization that they felt compelled to include it in the fee renewal question.

“We are actually at a point where the existence of opt-outs, the way that they’re happening – as opposed to the student-run refund system that we had previously – is undermining our ability to fulfill the student mandate,” he said.

“Opt-outs present both obviously a financial burden on our organization, but [also] a huge human resources burden. It’s incredibly taxing on our board and staff to essentially, every semester, run a referendum existence campaign against the opt-out campaign,” he continued.

Both referenda questions ask that fees be “not opt-outable on the Minerva online opt-out system but [are] instead fully refundable directly through” the organizations.

McGill instituted the current online opt-out system in 2007, the same year that both CKUT and QPIRG faced their last existence referenda. Previously, opt-outs were run by the organizations themselves, requiring students to opt out in person. In the fall 2007 SSMU General Assembly, students passed a motion to reinstitute the former system, as well as a referendum question the following semester mandating SSMU to lobby for an end to the online opt-out system. The administration ignored both decisions.

Co-chair of the CKUT ‘yes’ committee (and former SSMU VP University Affairs) Rae Dooley is a current news intern at the station.

According to Dooley, about 40 per cent of CKUT’s annual budget is derived from McGill student fees. The remainder is drawn from CKUT’s annual funding drive, which usually averages about $50,000, as well as grants and ad revenue from community groups.

“We’re just seeing a system that wasn’t really informing students about what they were doing. We’ve had students come to us after the opt-out period saying, ‘Can I pay you a fee? I didn’t know what I was opting out of.’ We think that part of that is because CKUT has no power over the administration of our fee system anymore, because it was taken under the control of the [McGill] administration.”

According to Dooley, CKUT is the only campus-community radio station in the country that does not control the administration of their fees.

In an email to The Daily, McGill Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson said that the online opt-out system “was implemented to serve students in the first place.”

“The previous opt-out system was so cumbersome that students were not reasonably able to exercise their right to opt out,” wrote Mendelson. “Decisions about how the University collects fees are administrative matters that can’t, of course, be unilaterally determined by student referenda.”

According to Wheeler, another result of the 2008 referendum was communication from the administration emphasizing they would only consider a referendum decision to change the opt-out system if it was included in a student-approved existence question. This would ensure that students provide a clear mandate for the organization to exist under a new opt-out system.

“There are very specific legal requirements to the question,” said Wheeler. “Students need to mandate that our fee is renewed in a certain way… Its administration is also part of the same question according to McGill’s interpretation, and so the question has to be combined.”

Wheeler said QPIRG has been doing its “due diligence” in terms of presenting the clearest question possible to students.

Mendelson, however, said clarity is “clearly one of the problems” with the current question.

“Frankly, I find [it] to be put in a convoluted, confusing way, and it would, therefore, not meet the definition of a clear question,” said Mendelson.

“When questions cannot be implemented because they are not clear, they aren’t implemented – until the group gets a result from a clear question,” he continued. “Organizations are encouraged to submit their questions beforehand to avoid such problems. Many groups do, but some, unfortunately, don’t.”

There is not an established ‘no’ committee for either CKUT or QPIRG’s referendum. However, Elections McGill has served notice of illegal ‘no’ campaigning, notifying students on the online referendum ballot that the campaigning was not subject to by-laws governing postering, campaign funding, and sanctions.

“As a result, any information that was disseminated was not verified as correct nor could Elections McGill ensure that a spirit of fair campaigning was upheld,” reads Election McGill’s statement on the online ballot.

Wheeler confirmed that a Facebook group – named “Vote No to CKUT and QPIRG” – had existed, but has been taken down. Wheeler added that there had not been illegal postering or flyering, and that he had noticed a recent decline in illegal ‘no’ campaigning.

“[We’ve] noticed that, again, [it’s] consistent with other trends that we’ve seen about opt-out campaigning. It’s being done by a faceless group of students that is not even making efforts to make itself accountable, or accessible to the same students that it’s trying to win over,” Wheeler said.

Quorum for the referendum period is 4,000 students, or 15 per cent of SSMU membership. If the vote does not reach quorum, the questions could be passed to the spring referendum period.

Voting will take place online until Thursday, November 10 at 6 p.m. Polling stations are located in rotating locations throughout the week: in Leacock today, Bronfman on Tuesday, and the lobby of the Shatner building on Wednesday and Thursday.