Revote on Student Activity Fee stands on shaky ground
By Kassie Parisi & Madeline St. Amour
Managing Editor & Assoc. News Editor
March 31, 2015
*A previous version of this article stated that certain parts of the internal Student Association budget fell into the external category. It also said that the total proposed budget for this academic year is $708,651. This amount is actually the 2014-2015 external affairs budget. The budget for this year has not yet been finalized. This article has been updated with the correct information.
The Student Association at the University at Albany will hold a revote on the Student Activity Fee on April 1 through April 3 after the initial vote to make the fee voluntary was invalidated.
Referenda regarding whether or not the Student Activity Fee will be voluntary or mandatory are held at least every two years. The last referendum was held in 2013, and during that election the fee was made mandatory.
Previously, the SA bylaw 609.3 said “referenda can only be voted during general elections.” This however was changed at the meeting on March 11, during which SA passed an amendment to the bylaw. The amendment would allow them to hold a referendum whenever they need, not just during general elections.
According to SA bylaw 515.2 , a referendum regarding the Student Activity Fee would be binding if 10 percent of students eligible to vote cast their votes in that referendum.
Senator Conner Dunleavy said that SA has established a precedent regarding the Student Association Fee referendums. If fewer than 10 percent of students vote in a referendum, then the decision will revert back to whatever the outcome from the previous vote was.
In this case, since the Student Activity Fee referendum held on March 9 was invalidated, the fee would become mandatory, since that was the result of the last vote in 2013.
SA Deputy Comptroller and Deputy Chair of the Elections Commission Robert Warshauer said that his office received many verbal complaints and calls from students complaining about the outcome of the vote. Upon requesting any formal complaints the commission received, the ASP was sent two.
The first complaint, from senator Christian Chowdhury, said “I fully believe that having the abstention option on the vote to have the Student Activity Fee was wrong.” He continued to say that it was his belief that the abstention option confused the student body.
The second complaint was from SA president Francis Agyemang. In his complaint, Agyemang cited Appendix A: Guidelines for Conduct of the Referendum Under Policy of the Board of Trustees and claimed that the ballot on the March 9 election was not congruent to the sample ballot that the guidelines provide. Agyemang also said that the abstention option was the issue.
“The results indicate that 7.7 percent of voters abstained from casting a ballot in the student activity fee referendum, and the difference between the vote for a voluntary or mandatory student activity fee was only 2.32 percent. The abstention of 7.7 percent could have changed the outcome of the referendum,” Agyemang said in his complaint.
An email sent to the entire undergraduate student body from the Student Association Elections Commission said that the revote is a result of the March 9 ballot not being congruent with SUNY guidelines.
The guideline cited in the email leads to Appendix A: Guidelines for Conduct of the Referendum Under Policy of the Board of Trustees. The guideline provides a standardized ballot to be used when having a referendum on the fee. The standardized ballot consists of two options: an option that the Student Activity Fee be voted mandatory for all students and an option that the Student Activity Fee be voluntary for all students.
It also suggests that if a term other than “Student Activity Fee” is used on the ballot that the differing term be clarified and that the ballot should indicate what portion of the student body the fee would apply to.
There is nothing in the guideline regarding the issue of abstentions. Also mentioned is the fact that sufficient promotion be done prior to the election to make voters aware of what the fee entails.
Some students have expressed frustration over the referendum.
“I think it’s insane that people don’t like the result of a vote so they decide a revote is necessary. They linked policy from SUNY that did not clarify that they had to have a referendum. Are you kidding me?” said UAlbany junior Mike Popowski. “They make up their own rules, piss off the students, and run themselves without worrying about anyone else. This is not how democracy works. Just because you don’t like the way a popular vote goes does not give you the right to re-do it as you want.”
UAlbany Senior Ben Cramer said, “It seems convenient that they called for a re-vote. I support the fee but not the way they are going about it.”
During the SA meeting on March 11, senators passed a bill to have the referendum. At the same meeting, some senators expressed concern for Middle Earth, saying that it is funded solely by SA and is not allowed to fundraise.
Dolores Cimini, director of the Middle Earth Program, confirmed that the program does not fundraise. Because it is a “campus service organization,” they aren’t required to. The Counseling Center also funds Middle Earth, contributing three times the amount that SA does, Cimini said.
Nicholas Maenza, the president of Five Quad, said that they hold fundraisers every year. However, the amount they raise is a small slice of their total budget.
Maenza also said that Five Quad is working with SA to create a plan to sustain the service if the fee does become voluntary.
“I do not think either of these programs [Five Quad or Middle Earth] will just end. We provide a needed service for the entire UAlbany community and if we left it would be a huge loss,” he said.
On SA’s budget for the 2014-15 academic year, Middle Earth received $64,093, which would make the Counseling Center’s contribution about $190,000.
She predicted that Middle Earth’s student-help hotline would be closed if the fee were made voluntary and they lost SA funding. She also said that they would have to cut the number of students they train down from 180 to 60 or fewer.
Cimini is also concerned with how the potential loss of clubs could affect students.
“I am concerned as a psychologist and mental health professional about the more global and significant impact the voluntary fee would have on UAlbany’s student group infrastructure in general, and, associated with this, on student quality of life,” she said.
The Student Activity Fee costs full-time students $100 per semester. It funds most student groups. The total proposed budget for the 2014-2015 year for external affairs is $708,651.
The fee also funds SA’s internal affairs, which includes university programs like Speaker Series, Dippikill, student legal services, multicultural affairs, and community outreach and engagement. It also funds SA operations, stipends for certain SA members, such as the president, vice president, comptroller, senate chair, and various directors, as well as phone bills and supplies. The total internal budget for the 2013-2014 academic year was $1,495,405 (the internal budget for this year is not yet available online).
Many senators felt that there was a lack of information provided to voters regarding what the Student Activity Fee does.
“If students don’t want the fee, then it won’t pass, but there at least needs to be a chance for them to be educated about it,” said Chowdhury.
“Nothing will get done without this fee. We need it,” said senator-elect Haris Alic.
Dunleavy acknowledged that the Student Activity Fee is essential to SA, but he mentioned that SA has to be careful of setting a precedent of simply overturning votes that they do not agree with.
“If the vote is held again and the fee fails, please, respect that result. Respect the students,” he said.