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Loose Cannon: Electing CSA execs: the worst of both worlds?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

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Written by Greg Beneteau

A good friend of mine, now in his thirties, is fond of telling me stories about his time working at The Fulcrum, The University of Ottawa’s student newspaper, while doing his undergraduate studies.

The Fulcrum became an independent corporation in 2004, but back when my friend worked there, the newspaper was owned by the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa. The Fulcrum’s association with a student union meant that the newspaper was subject to some rather unorthodox practices, including electing its editorial staff.

The idea baffles me. What would an election to be an editor look like, exactly? Would candidates promise to publish more good news than their predecessors? Would you dig out your opponents’ old essays and criticize them for improper use of semicolons?

My point is that not every position should be filled by popular vote, especially if you don’t want the position to be politicized. I’m starting to feel that way about the Executive Committee at the Central Student Association.

I was led to this realization because of an ongoing dispute over the release of a survey commissioned by the Capacity, Analysis and Planning Committee (CAPCOM), which reports to the CSA Board of Directors.

(Download the survey here) (powerpoint document)

As part of the survey, CAPCOM asked members of the board to evaluate the effectiveness of board training, the structure of meetings, and other areas relevant to board governance.

More controversially, CAPCOM also asked board members to evaluate the five executives in categories such as professionalism, accessibility and the execution of their portfolios.

Suffice it to say, some executives fared better than others, and the board has been grappling over whether the results should be circulated to the media. (It’s largely a mute point, since the survey was entered into the meeting minutes and is therefore a matter of public record).

Politicians receive public performance reviews all the time; they’re called polls. The five executive members are elected to their respective portfolios, so they’re technically fair game.

On the other hand, most employers have strict rules about confidentiality when evaluating the performance of their employees. City councillors, for example, don’t publish polls analyzing the effectiveness of their staff. Such behaviour would undermine the bond of trust between elected officials and civil servants.

So, are CSA executives politicians or elected civil servants? In many ways they’re both, which is the worst of both worlds.

Like cabinet ministers, each executive member has a portfolio dictating their responsibilities. The Communications and Public Affairs Commissioner organizes public relations campaigns. The Local Affairs Commissioner organizes bus pass distribution, et cetera. They’re given a lot of leeway to pursue their own campaigns - as long as those campaigns fall within their respective portfolios – and under extraordinary circumstances have the power to make decisions on behalf of the board.

However, executives are also “responsible for further tasks as assigned by the Board of Directors with duly authorized job descriptions,” and “shall be responsible to the Board of Directors for the performance of duties,” according to CSA Bylaws. By passing motions, the Board of Directors can tell executive members what to do, and reprimand them for not doing it.

To top it all off, CSA executives are voting members on the very board on which their supervisors sit. This is not unusual for politicians, but not a good idea for staff. As Editor of thecannon, I can make suggestions to my superiors on the Operating Committee, but I cannot vote to implement those suggestions.

So, executive members are bosses, staff and independent operators all wrapped into one. It’s a terrible mess. For one thing, executives enjoy the job protections of political operatives – they can only be removed from office through a referedum initiated by petition or a two-thirds vote on the board – while playing mostly apolitical roles in student government.

Secondly, the executive and board are constantly at odds over who is accountable to whom, and since there’s no one at the top of the hierarchy like a president to make the big decisions, it’s a constant stalemate.

With CSA elections coming up next week, candidates and voters need to take a good, hard look at the system that currently exists. If that system isn’t working, we need to come up with one that does. Otherwise, students will lose faith in the effectiveness of its representatives, elected or otherwise.

Greg Beneteau is Editor-in-Chief of thecannon. Loose Cannon publishes every Thursday in The Ontarion Student Newspaper at the University of Guelph.

The opinions posted on thecannon.ca reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question

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