“Elections Make Us Crazy”

Friday, March 30, 2007

Written by Gonzalo Moreno

In its most incendiary meeting this year, the CSA Board of Directors debated for over six hours whether to accept the results of last week’s elections. A message that could be construed to contain electoral material against a candidate for the External Commissioner position was circulated through three different email listservs, an action that goes against CSA bylaws and which CSA Chief Electoral Office Charles Beatty believed “compromised this election to some degree.”

Before the expected showdown of the night, the CSA Business Office Manager submitted the union’s Operating Budget for the 2007-2008 fiscal year. Anticipating the huge amount of controversy that was to follow later that night, the Board raised no objections and the budget was voted on and passed with no fuss.

That was to be the only spell of tranquility in the seven-hour meeting, as tempers immediately flared up when the matter of elections began to be discussed. At the heart of the matter was an e-mail circulated about External Commissioner candidate Romesh Hettiarachchi. While the e-mail did not explicitly call for voting against Hettiarachchi or in favour of Cailey Campbell, his only rival in the race, Hettiarachchi felt that the email was nothing short of character assassination and was severely detrimental to his chances in the election and to his career beyond this university. Campbell was ultimately elected with a 221-vote margin over Hettiarachchi.

The email was originally circulated through the listserv of the Guelph Resource Centre for Gender Empowerment and Diversity (GRCGED, formerly the Women’s Resource Centre). From there it found its way to the listserv of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG).

CSA By-Law 8.6 forbids the use of email listservs for the purposes of “promoting a position with respect to a candidate in the election.” In view of this text, CSA Communications Commissioner Jonathan Odumeru said that this was “an intentional attempt to jeopardize the elections” on the part of “members that flout the rules of the organization.” Both OPIRG and GRCGED hold seats on the CSA Board of Directors.

GRCGED representative Daniela Masotti said that “our email was never intended to be a campaign email.” Sonal Pala, a fellow member of the GRCGED collective, assured the Board that “we are taking this very seriously,” and that “this was not a deliberate or malicious attempt to influence the CSA elections.” Similarly, Melanie Willson, the member of OPIRG who disseminated the email, wrote a letter of apology in which she states that forwarding the email was a personal decision “without giving it extensive thought” and that she “take[s] full responsibility for having forwarded the e-mail.”

CSA Human Rights Office Coordinator Lia Tarachansky, who herself was a victim of a listserv smear campaign when she ran in an executive race last year, summed up the position of the organizations by saying that, regardless of election rules, “the individual’s [Hettiarachchi’s] actions [which were described in the email] go against our anti-oppression mandate and we had to inform its volunteer base about it.”

She also accused Odumeru of having a conflict of interest on the matter because he is a friend of and has shared community projects with Hettiarachchi. Hettiarachchi argued that he was not once contacted about the content of the email before it was sent and that election rules prevented him from defending himself of the allegations.

Beatty, who is ultimately responsible for running the election, declared that, in his professional opinion, “what they [OPIRG and GRCGED] were doing was in fact a campaign email, and in the interest of this organization we need to take punitive measures.” Odumeru went a step further and suggested that the membership and voting privileges of these organizations in the Board of Directors be suspended for a year.

This drew immediate and strong reactions from the Board. Academic Commissioner Becky Wallace argued that suspension of a seat is not contemplated anywhere in the CSA’s constitutional framework, and Local Affairs Commissioner Bre Walt and C.J. Munford representative Tommy Lau agreed that it was “not the right idea to eliminate their voice from the board.”

Chair Luke Weiler clarified that there was no procedural way to suspend the seats and reinstate them a year down the road, and that the Board would have to rescind the seat and bank on next year’s Board granting it again. In view of this interpretation, CSAHS representative Joel Harnest said that “we are walking a very dangerous line if there is no guarantee that they will be reinstated.”

Seeing how there was no agreement and tempers were flaring, the Board entered a period of voting to reach a resolution on the issue. In successive strawpulls, it was determined that the majority of the Board thought that the electoral by-law needs clarification, but that even in its present form the listserv email had indeed broken it and therefore gone against CSA electoral policy. The Board agreed to consult with the Policy and By-law Review Committee on how to best change conflictive electoral by-laws.

On the matter of punishment, the Board agreed that asking for very public apologies to the organization and to Hettiarachchi would be the initially adequate course of action. Beyond that, however, the possibility or exclusion of further punitive action divided the Board. After countless amendments and amendments to the amendments, a resolution was passed that encouraged OPIRG and GRCGED to apologize by promising further punitive action if such apologies were not issued and promising not to take further punitive action if they were. Although the Board passed this motion with only 3 votes against, CoA representative Bill Maloney said that he wording of the motion was nothing short of “blackmail.”

After the actions of OPIRG and GRCGED had been dealt with, the next item on the list was whether to accept the results of the election, as Hettiarachchi had issued one appeal and Momina Mir, an Academic Commissioner candidate, had issued a second one. Mir’s appeal concerned a professor that had spoken in favour of Derek Pieper, who ultimately won the race for the position.

Beatty was convinced that Pieper had no knowledge of or part in this, and had already spoken to the individuals concerned about it. Mir’s campaign manager decided to withdraw the appeal during the course of the meeting, but he said that he wished to bring the issue “to the board so that the question of professors influencing an independent election could be considered.”

Hettiarachchi’s appeal was less easily dealt with. Beatty said that he had decided to “endorse the result of the elections in light of the listserv mail,” but added that “this election has been compromised to some degree,” and that “we do have to accept the results because having an election before the end of the year is not feasible.”

When discussing alternatives to not endorsing Beatty’s decision to uphold the election results, Walt said that “if the consequence is that we have no one in this position before a fall by-election we need to think long and hard about this.” In that line of reasoning, External Commissioner John Coombs said that “he felt for” Hettiarachchi but that if they overturned the results, “next year, anyone can send a sabotage e-mail”, and that “the decision is clear, not to say it is fair.”

Discussion shifted to whether and to what extent the e-mail had influenced student voting. A lot of Board members felt that the move to online voting had implicitly stated their confidence in students to make an informed vote and, as Harnest put it, it was “not appropriate to question the motives behind the student voting.” Hettiarachchi’s request to have Campbell’s position be interim until a fall re-election was not discussed. The election results were ultimately upheld and will be ratified in the next Board meeting, after the necessary legal period to do so has passed.

As the meeting wound down, the Board also decided to give the Aboriginal Students’ Association an additional year to change their status so they could occupy their seat on the Board. The ASA stood to lose its seat on April 1st.

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