The referendum is back.
That’s not a complaint. Last year, a referendum by UTMSU on fee increases to expand the Student Centre was passed by majority vote (with a turnout that blows executive election turnouts out of the water—a whopping 18%!), only to founder in the proverbial shoals of bureaucracy. The experience was, as current UTMSU president Raymond Noronha put it, “frustrating for students”.
The choice of statement is somewhat surprising, given that it seems to have been a bizarre error on the union’s part that gave rise to the said frustration. As reviewed in our cover story this week, UTMSU used a voter list that allowed downtown students to vote (on fees they don’t pay) and the results were contaminated. The university office responsible for the list claims the right list was made available to UTMSU but never used; the list actually used was the one for UTSU’s annual general meeting. The question of how on earth that list got into UTMSU’s hands remains open. The UTMSU officer in question resigned, but still, a lament for frustration caused by one’s own union rings a little hollow. Never fear: Mr. Noronha has promised the team will be more careful this time.
But what was especially annoying was that this referendum was so long overdue in the first place. The union cites the need for an expansion in terms like “The Student Centre was built in 1999 for 6,000 students, and must now accommodate 13,000.” Those numbers are correct (not that a huge proportion of us use the building often, considering most of the food and study space is elsewhere). But the discrepancy has mostly just been allowed to grow worse—enrolment was already at about 9,600 five years ago in 2009, for example, which is plenty of justification for expansion—while not much has been done to rectify it.
In 2007 the expansion discussions between UTMSU and UTM began with a proposal but failed two years later when both parties refused to back down over who would control food services in the expanded building. In 2011, after meeting with focus groups, UTMSU put forth a ridiculous proposal (still available at utmsu.ca at the time of writing) that included a garage door for the pub, lots of soundproof office space, a convenience store, and more, along with an embarrassing number of made-up words. The extravagant budget led to the proposal’s rejection and raised suspicions that the union wasn’t taking its own expansion campaign—certainly a useful one for its public image—seriously.
So when a new proposal was made in 2012, an agreement reached with the university over matching student funds, and a referendum held to approve the fee increases, it came as a welcome relief—not least because, as Mr. Noronha has argued more than once, the constantly rising costs of construction mean the same amount of money yields less and less each year. So it was understandably perplexing to learn earlier this year that Mr. Noronha declined to make any promises in his election and decided to seek feedback on whether to even hold a replacement referendum. For goodness’ sake, the first one was passed by a solid majority of voters, and recall that the value declines every year, by his own account. What would have justified declining to rerun a successful referendum? Whether you plan to vote for or against the terms, what would have been unsettling would be year seven of limbo. I’m glad that that won’t be the case.
On the subject of voting for or against the terms, that’s of course an interesting question affected by multiple factors. The timeframe, for one, might dissuade some students: those who are halfway through university now wouldn’t get to see an expanded building. The standard reply to this objection is that we inherited good things from past generations at no personal cost. That one comes down to social conscience, I guess. More interesting to me are the specific terms. Our current Student Centre levy is $12.50 a semester, and will almost double (with a proviso for 10% inflation per year) if the referendum is passed. An interesting investigation will be how these figures were determined: do students have an easy way of finding out whether the $10.50 per semester increase is appropriate for the projected costs? It’s hard to tell when, according to Mr. Noronha, the services UTMSU plans to add in the expansion are almost totally undetermined. Food options will expand (no guarantees on a pub open late on Fridays, though, says Mr. Noronha). Maintenance reserves are guaranteed. Beyond that it seems to be guesswork.
In the end, if an expansion yields practical benefits for students—and attracts more use—it will justify itself. But in order to determine whether and how there can be such a result, it would need to move on from being a nice idea, played with for a bit and then put down for a bit, and start receiving serious attention.