Name-calling, accusations of fiscal dishonesty, wholesale denial and outside arbitration. It’s either a divorce or an election.
Unfortunately, it’s the latter, and York University students have no prenuptial agreement to rely on.
In a bizarre impasse, York now has two York Federation of Students (YSF) – one left over from a 2002 election and still occupying the offices, and one elected in November 2003, called Progress Not Politics.
This dust-up over electoral legitimacy occurs on a campus regularly rocked by disputes between Palestinian activists and Israeli government boosters.
It would be easy to see it in this light, since the new slate is led by Paul Cooper, prez of the campus Young Zionist Partnership. The rest of the media has certainly rushed to cram the story into the "Middle East tensions on campus’’ mould.
But try as I might, I just can’t locate the geopolitical angle.
Instead, I keep running into the mundane. The old council says the Progress Not Politics slate overspent on their election posters, and refuses to ratify the results. It’s all about a $500 printing bill? I feel like I’m back at school.
But for now the buck literally stops at the administration, which last week stepped in to take control of all monies (including health plan and campus club funds) usually under the student federation’s control. Fiscal responsibilities have now been dispersed to the heads of York’s various college councils.
I ask current/former VP external Pablo Vivanco, member of the outgoing/staying-right-the-hell-where-we-are YFS, what he thinks of the admin’s move.
"It’s completely illegitimate. (The administration has) no jurisdiction. We’ve been working with the college councils and student organizations, trying to resolve this. (York) acted unilaterally."
But YFS president-elect/wannabe Cooper has a similar take on the council Vivanco represents. "There are political differences between the old and the incoming associations," says Cooper. "Mainly it’s a power grab.’’
At a school that takes pride in its political science department, it’s surprising that YFS bylaws stipulate that elections must be ratified by the outgoing association, even if its members ran in the election.
This kind of stipulation is technically known in legal circles as stupid.
"It was a fair election with clear results," says Cooper. "What’s happening is akin to Ernie Eves losing the election but the laws saying Eves has to confirm McGuinty."
He says the Progress Not Politics slate he heads stands for making the YFS more transparent, accountable and focused on "student issues" and less on international ones.
The one thing that all sides in this affair can agree on is that there is little reason to focus on Mideast tensions.
"The media made this into Jews-vs-Arabs," says Vivanco exhaustedly.
"There hasn’t been any religious ferment," corroborates Ryan Jarvis, the election’s chief returning officer. "It’s been spun that way, but there hasn’t."
So back to the $500 discrepancy in a printing bill.
In actuality, complainants came to Jarvis alleging that PNP broke election rules by not counting their photocopied pamphlets at "fair market value."
The idea is to avoid advantages for those with special access by requiring candidates to count promotion costs at minimum values.
Vivanco puts minimum value at 5 cents a copy; Cooper says 2 to 3 cents; Jarvis 3 to 5 cents. After PNP paid a price of a penny a copy, their 4,000 leaflets counted at fair value put them over the campaign spending limit.
The complaint was referred to the elections committee, for which PNP produced a letter from the publishers where the photocopying was done, saying that the same deal was available to anyone. Vivanco disputes this.
"One of the complainants got a quote from the exact same place for the exact same job, and there was a discrepancy of about $500."
He also points out that PNP campaign manager Yaakov Roth co-edited a book printed at that publishing house.
"He was an editor," says Cooper, "but he had nothing to do with the printing." He also dismisses the spending regulations, saying, "Fair market value is whatever (price) you can get."
Jarvis disagrees. "The lowest we were going to accept was 3 cents." In his opinion, however, the election should go through.
"They were voted in democratically and the elections committee did come to a decision – albeit a sketchy one."
That committee absolved the PNP of wrongdoing – though, true to form, defeated YFS members kicked up as much dust as they could.
Jarvis, however, is more concerned with the administration stepping in.
"It sets a dangerous precedent – a student-run incorporated body being told what to do by the administration has repercussions for this university and universities throughout Canada. It could really backfire."
Multiple calls to the administration yielded no response. According to a recent press release, it is now dealing with PNP as the rightful YFS, with one exception: no office.
The YFS office is in the student centre, and student centre corporation director Robert Castle informs me of an "operating agreement" with the YFS.
"We try to be careful with who we deal with, and wait until they deal with their internal stuff before we recognize someone new."
For now, a trusteeship of college council prezes controls YSF, and it’s unclear whether this will end before the next election, or who actually has any power.
For his part, Cooper says, "If the only thing we can do is fix the YFS bylaws so this type of thing can never happen again, I’ll be satisfied."
It’s also unclear to students which reps they’re supposed to go to – the ones they voted for or the ones who got elected? The ones with the office or the ones with the administration’s approval?
And what of the future?
A YFS that campaigns for international democracy but won’t ratify its own elections, or a YFS that doesn’t think tuition fees are a student issue? A transition of power, a splitting of power or the loss of power?
That’s for someone else to decide. All I can say for sure is I’m glad I dropped out.