Photo by Cindy Cui / Photo Editor
Note: there was a printing error with the version of this article published on March 5, 2020 in print. The concluding paragraph was cut off.
On Feb. 9, 2020, the Student Representative Assembly passed a motion to put OPIRG McMaster’s fee to referendum. In previous years, undergraduate students have had the option to pay a $5.50 fee to McMaster’s chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group. From March 10 to 12, students will have the chance to vote online to either keep paying OPIRG’s $5.50 fee or remove it entirely.
What is OPIRG?
Established in 1995, OPIRG is a provincial organization with individual chapters at 11 universities in Ontario. It was created to empower students to take action on social justice and environmental issues through grassroots initiatives.
OPIRG McMaster currently helps fund and provide training to several student-based public interest projects on campus, including Bleed Free McMaster, Threadworks, Meals with Purpose, Eco-Friendly Mac and Turtles of Cootes.
“We provide singular opportunities at McMaster for the kinds of social and environmental engagement and activism that we do. There is no other organization that students can come to with these kinds of ideas and get the kind of support that we provide,” said Justine Ann Becker, OPIRG McMaster’s Communications Director and Secretary.
In January 2020, OPIRG McMaster began supporting three additional public interest projects. This includes Warm Soles, a sock drive initiative for Hamiltonians experiencing homelessness; Divest Mac, a group dedicated to fossil fuel divestment at McMaster and Free Store McMaster, a donation-based system that provides essential school and home supplies to students who may not be able to afford them.
What is MSU Bylaw 5?
The SRA sent OPIRG McMaster’s fee to referendum for violating section Bylaw 5 of the McMaster Student Union.
Bylaw 5 was created in 2013 to increase financial transparency and accountability for non-University, non-MSU groups. These groups include McMaster Marching Band, McMaster Solar Car, Incite Magazine, Engineers Without Borders McMaster and OPIRG McMaster. Prior to Bylaw 5’s creation in 2013, no university or MSU policy mandated these Bylaw 5 groups to make their spending and budgets publicly available.
This year, OPIRG McMaster’s fee was sent to referendum for violating section 3.1.1 and 3.1.2 of Bylaw 5. However, this isn’t the first time that the SRA decided to send OPIRG McMaster to a referendum. In the 2017-2018 academic year, the SRA also found OPIRG to be in violation section 3.1.3 of Bylaw 5.
OPIRG McMaster’s 2017 Referendum
On Nov. 26, 2017, the SRA sent OPIRG McMaster to referendum for violating section 3.1.3 of Bylaw 5, after ruling that OPIRG had failed to sufficiently advertise that students could opt-out of paying their fee. Following the 2017 referendum, OPIRG’s yearly fee was reduced from $8.07 to $5.50.
OPIRG McMaster addressed concerns of insufficient advertising regarding their opt-out fee after the 2017 referendum. In the year following the 2017 referendum, the Finance Committee believed that the group had better advertised that students could opt-out of their fee and had made appropriate changes to their budget and practices.
“The Finance Committee was satisfied with the state of OPIRG. We believe they are using their funds appropriately and we were satisfied with their responses to questions,” confirmed former AVP (Finance) and current VP (Finance) Alex Johnston in a memo to the SRA on Nov. 21, 2018.
The Path to Referendum, 2020
Fast forward to 2020, the SRA has sent OPIRG McMaster’s fee to referendum again for allegedly failing to abide by section 3.1.1 and 3.1.2 of Bylaw 5. According to section 3.1.1 and 3.1.2, OPIRG McMaster must provide financial statements to the VP (Finance) by Oct. 15 for the upcoming school year and must maintain easily accessible financial reporting.
According to current AVP (Finance) Jess Anderson, the Finance Committee sent initial emails to all Bylaw 5 groups on Sept. 22, 2019. The emails requested copies of the groups’ updated budgets for the 2019-2020 year no later than Sept. 30, 2019.
“Of all Bylaw 5 groups, only OPIRG McMaster failed to respond to me repeatedly. After an excessive amount of email follow-ups, and repeated attempts to meet with OPIRG office staff during 9-5 work hours, the Finance Committee was unable to acquire an initial response from OPIRG until Oct. 10. We did not receive their preliminary budget (which they later admitted was not accurate) until Oct. 19, four days after the Oct. 15 deadline as outlined by Bylaw 5,” stated Anderson in an email to the Silhouette.
Anderson added that the budget on OPIRG McMaster’s website at the time was inaccurate and had many errors.
“It took 24 days after our initial follow up questions to gain a first set of responses, and then another 8 days [Nov. 27, 2019] to acquire the group’s most accurate budget . . . With all of this being said, the Finance Committee felt that the group lacked financial transparency and recommended the OPIRG fee go to referendum,” stated Anderson in the email.
OPIRG McMaster claims that email communication was made difficult after having to lay off three paid staff members in the wake of the Student Choice Initiative.
“We were forced to lay off all of our staff until we received our opt-out rates, so we went through the entire first semester with no staff. Previously there had been an email account that was only operated by the staff,” said Becker.
Currently, OPIRG McMaster employs one part-time staff member, Office Coordinator Shelley Porteous, at 22 hours per week.
According to OPIRG McMaster President Mateo Rio Newberry Orrantia, the group’s response time was slowed due to personal reasons affecting OPIRG McMaster’s Treasurer and because the Finance Committee did not communicate with OPIRG McMaster’s primary email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
VP (Finance) Alex Johnston said that it took OPIRG McMaster several months to tell the Finance Committee that email@example.com was their preferred email.
“At no time over the 4.5 months of communication did OPIRG inform the MSU about any changes in email addresses or that the MSU was contacting the incorrect email. OPIRG informed the SRA of this at the meeting on Feb. 9, 4.5 months after initial communication was sent and a back-and-forth dialogue had been taking place,” said VP Finance Alex Johnston.
OPIRG McMaster Addresses Inconsistencies in Finance Committee Memos
OPIRG McMaster believes that there are inconsistencies in the reasons for why their fee was being sent to referendum.
On Dec. 8, 2019, AVP Finance Anderson presented a memo to the SRA stating that the Finance Committee recommends that OPIRG be sent to a referendum. The memo stated that the group was unable to fully answer questions regarding their staffing, had a $91,947 surplus, and had used approximately 87 per cent of student funding for salaries, benefits and administration, and for these reasons should be sent to referendum.
OPIRG McMaster states that Anderson’s concerns have already been addressed or are untrue.
OPIRG McMaster claims it could not provide staffing information at the Dec. 8 SRA meeting as the group was still in discussion with Canadian Union of Public Employees 1281. Moreover, OPIRG McMaster states that the $91,947 surplus was paid out as severance to three employees that were laid off in the summer in the wake of the Student Choice Initiative. OPIRG McMaster adds that costs associated with staffing and benefits will account for only 31.2 per cent of the current 2019-2020 budget.
The group also points out that while Anderson’s memo incorrectly references OPIRG McMaster’s failure to adhere to section 3.1.1 and 3.1.2 of Bylaw 5 in the 2017-2018 school year, OPIRG McMaster was sent to referendum in 2017 for violating section 3.1.3 of Bylaw 5.
“None of these claims are true, so when we went to [the meeting on Feb. 9], then they entered in the language of violating (Bylaw 5). And so from [the meeting on Dec. 8] to [the meeting on Feb. 9], the terms of the referendum completely shifted,” said OPIRG President Mateo Rio Newberry Orrantia.
A Failed Appeal
On Feb. 23, 2020, a delegation from OPIRG McMaster made a presentation to the SRA to reconsider the motion to send the group’s fee to referendum.
At the meeting, OPIRG McMaster emphasized that the group’s budget had been posted to their website on Aug. 10. OPIRG McMaster also reiterated that the Finance Committee’s initial recommendation to send their fee to referendum on Dec. 8 does not reference Bylaw 5 violations. Moreover, the group pointed out that while the Finance Committee had concerns with both OPIRG McMaster and McMaster Solar Car, only OPIRG McMaster was sent to referendum.
“[On Nov. 17], the Solar Car group made a presentation to the SRA, and in that presentation there was a series of concerns about financial transparency and overall accountability. However, the Finance Committee recommended they not send [Solar Car] to referendum. Instead they put the emphasis on making a series of improvement in transparency in their process to improve financial records. The mishaps were the result of poor communication and transitioning, which would apply in [OPIRG McMaster] case as well,” said Ryan Tse, a member of the Board of Directors and the current AVP (Municipal Affairs)..
However, according to Johnston, the Finance Committee treated OPIRG McMaster fairly. Johnston stated that upon review, the Finance Committee felt that McMaster Solar Car had abided by Bylaw 5.
“In regards to the comments made by OPIRG at the [Feb. 23] SRA meeting, specifically alleging that there was a difference in how [the] Finance Committee reviewed Solar Car [versus] OPIRG and this is simply not true … Solar Car’s budget was sent to the Finance Committee by Oct. 15, the budget was online, and the Committee felt the funds were being used appropriately,” stated Johnston in an email to the Silhouette.
Ultimately, the motion to reconsider the decision to send OPIRG McMaster’s fee to referendum failed 7-10. On their website, OPIRG McMaster maintains that the decision to send their group’s fee to referendum were based on misinformation and the subjective claims of individual SRA members.
From March 10 to 12, 2020, students can vote online to either keep paying OPIRG’s $5.50 fee or remove it entirely.