Checks and balances

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Voice of Students sweep executive seats, For Students take 11 board seats, and voter turnout nears 20 per cent

John Cameron
Editor-in-Chief

After a vigorous and occasionally heated race, students at the University of Regina voted to replace incumbent students’ union president Kyle Addison and his For Students slate with the Voice of Students slate – and although their numbers were large, the margin was slim.

In the hotly-contested race for the presidency, Voice of Students candidate Kent Peterson won with 964 votes, beating Addison by 32. Independent candidate Reid Hill received 136 votes, and only 89 voters abstained.

Though other races were close – For Students candidate Mariah Perkins defeated independent Randy Johnson for the position of Education Students’ Director by a single vote – the presidency was the narrowest executive vote. The other candidates – incoming vice-presidents Haanim Nur (operations and finance), Melissa Blackhurst (student affairs), and Paige Kezima (external affairs) – saw margins of victory of between 50 and 120 votes.

Voice of Students have already begun their transition into the URSU executive offices, meeting with each other and with URSU staffers like Mike Staines in preparation for taking office on May 1.

For most incoming URSU executives, May is a transitional month in which the stnew executive extends the outgoing executives’ terms and enlists their help in order to get up to speed with URSU’s daily operations. In an unusual step, Voice of Students have chosen to forego this process, instead enlisting a transition team made up of four prior URSU executives – Mike Burton, Kristy Fyfe, Jenn Bergen, and Kathleen Wilson – to help them acclimatize.

“We decided not to [extend the previous executive’s term] because they are available in terms of [VP student affairs] Tyler Willox and probably [VP external affairs] Kaytlyn Barber; they will be on the board, so they're close by to answer any questions we have in terms of that. So we're not worried about all of a sudden losing that institutional memory,” Peterson said. “And we thought it was a good opportunity to bring in past URSU executives who did good work and who did a lot of things that we're offering to do now, such as lobbying for a tuition freeze. Kathleen Wilson and Mike Burton especially did a lot of work on that … We just think we have more to learn from people who had done it in the past as opposed to people who are doing it now.”

Along with the proposed tuition freeze, the Voice of Students platform includes several other planned policy initiatives, such as green roofs, community gardens, and sustainable and effective student transit, that Peterson admits will be difficult for the slate to enact this year. Instead, he says, URSU will be doing extensive research and reports in the hopes that future executives will pick up and run with these “long-term” projects.

But, Peterson says, the new executive plans to move forward with some of its bigger projects, such as lobbying for a tuition freeze, slashing executive privileges like Owl discounts, and halving locker rental fees. The Voice of Students had done a cost analysis on their platform, he claims; savings from these latter cuts will total about $10,000 and will tentatively go to PAC groups and a new fund for resident student events.

Some of these ideas were in the Voice of Students’ initial policy document. However, others were added to the slate’s platform later, after meeting with the organizers of and participants in Vote for Change, a project headed up independently by U of R students during the election.

Vote for Change was run by Alternative URSU Policy (AURSUP), an on-campus group that focuses on URSU policy and advocacy. Sonia Stanger, the group’s leader, likens AURSUP to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a non-partisan think tank with a focus on “social justice,” according to its website. She says that the purpose of the Vote for Change project was to engage students in a conversation with candidates – and, hopefully, elected representatives. The response, she says, was “overwhelming”.

“I think it was great because it showed that there is a way to have that conversation about things we need to change without necessarily the duality or the partisanship that might otherwise happen, just because we were a non-partisan students' group as opposed to supporting either side.”

Stanger says that, despite meeting some initial hesitation, AURSUP worked with both slates to reach out to students and access their ideas. She added that this give-and-take was the purpose of Vote for Change, and she suggests that the approach of working directly with students on policy is one the executive should carry forward.

“What they need to do is keep that conversation with the students really, really open, and ask the students what they want actively,” Stanger said. “… I think that my biggest advice would be to really listen and keep that conversation going with students.”

Peterson said he looks forward to working with AURSUP. “I made it clear to her that I hope they hold all our feet to the fire, so to speak, and to make sure we don't stray too far from what we said we'd do in an election and don't stray too far from what students said they wanted us to do in an election.”

Despite both slates working with AURSUP, however, there was nevertheless competitiveness between candidates, and while it manifested itself in a mostly healthy way during the debates, things did occasionally get ugly. Fine Arts Students’ Director candidate Jon Petrychyn’s posters were found vandalized in the hallways of the faculty of fine arts; though images of the vandalism were posted to Facebook, no perpetrator has been identified.

As well, Addison stirred up last-minute controversy by appearing on local radio host John Gormley’s talk show on March 16, ostensibly to talk about the Canadian Federation of Students referendum results, which were released on March 11. Though the interview began by discussing the proximity of the results’ release to the URSU general elections, it ended with Addison slamming Peterson for “disliking” figures such as Brad Wall and Vianne Timmons.

Peterson also drew criticism from Gormley for his involvement as vice-president of the provincial NDP, a position which Peterson resigned from prior to the elections.

However, there was some question as to whether Addison had violated election bylaws by appearing on Gormley’s show; as a result, Addison posted an apology to his blog on URSU’s website. Chief Returning Officer Drew Baldock didn’t address the incident directly, but he did suggest that URSU’s board should clarify rules and punishments in its election bylaws.

Another obstacle to the election proceeding smoothly was the inadvertent omission of Women’s Students Director candidate Zeinab Ramadan from the ballot. While Baldock initially attempted to smooth over the mistake by negotiating with the three candidates, he said that “ultimately there was no agreement so I think the fairest thing to do would be a revote – same hours, just one week later – for that.”

But Baldock was otherwise optimistic about the election. Turnout was high, especially considering that two blocs of students – co-op and internship students – were allowed to vote this year, when they hadn’t before. He also pointed out that online voting was comparatively smooth and uncomplicated this year, allowing more students to vote, and was overall positive about the effects of URSU’s total transition to online-only votes.

“I'd say less than 10 per cent of the people voted at [on-campus] polling stations so obviously people are doing it in the computer labs, on their laptops at home … It makes it easier for them to vote, they don't have to go out,” he said, before chuckling. “Plus, counting ballots is pretty much automatic.”

But the high turnout wasn’t for any one particular individual or campaign; although several races weren’t close, every For Students candidate who ran for a board position won it. And Peterson said that he’s taking that into consideration as part of URSU’s mandate. “They sort of set a pox on both our houses,” he joked.

“What students have told us is, ‘Go, you're all URSU representatives now, you're no longer this slate or that slate … Some of your ideas are the same, some of your ideas are different, but ultimately and at the end of the day you have to work together.’”

For a full list of results, visit URSU's website.

[Full disclosure: Kent Peterson was employed by the Carillon prior to the elections, and has returned to fill out his duties for the remainder of the year; however, Peterson took a leave of absence prior to the election, and the duties he is returning to are strictly financial in nature. The Carillon attempted to contact the other two presidential candidates, as well. Reid Hill did not respond to press inquiries as of Tuesday, and Kyle Addison turned down a request to be interviewed.]

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