USSU leak was a big mistake: the VP, council, and the Sheaf share the blame in the Ferwerda affair

STEVEN HEIDEL

Once again, students are arguing about the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union.

The four USSU executive members hold both elected and paid positions. Their salaries are paid through student fees and therefore some accountability measures have been put in place to ensure we’re getting the best bang for our buck. One of these measures is a complaint process, wherein three complaints lead to talks of impeachment. Vice President Student Affairs Alex Ferwerda has received his second complaint, which was approved by council at a March 1 meeting. The reasons cited for this complaint included absenteeism, tardiness and ineffective event planning.

This information came to light in the Sheaf’s March 8 edition, which used anonymous sources to report both the complaint and the decision by University Students’ Council to not inform students of the matter.

There are three separate parties involved in the affair that need to be addressed: Ferwerda, council and the Sheaf. To quote an old East Indian tale, “Though each was partly in the right, all were in the wrong.”

Former USSU president Chris Stoicheff, who spoke at the March 8 council meeting, said Ferwerda’s infractions weren’t as bad as they were made out. Nobody’s perfect, and Stoicheff made it clear that USSU executives often commit similar infractions as Ferwerda. However, with two complaints it can be assumed that Ferwerda went beyond mere imperfection. It was the other members of the executive who filed the complaint, after all, and the other executives would not have filed a complaint if they were all doing the same things. Executive members don’t need to be perfect but they certainly need to be good enough to justify to their colleagues that they deserve to be paid from the student purse.

Stoicheff also said the complaint would likely hurt Ferwerda’s image and reputation in the future, especially if the complaints were unfounded. However, if the complaint was indeed unfounded or would have been too severe a blow to his image, council would not have approved it in the first place. Keep in mind that this matter was discussed in council for almost an hour, with VP Ferwerda present to defend himself. The complaint was ultimately approved by a majority of council members.

Besides, not releasing the full details to the students causes even more damage since most people have the unfortunate tendency to assume the worst.

To me, this is the worst problem that occurred and the one that has been discussed the least: the decision by the council to keep these matters a secret. At the March 8 meeting, a guest stood up and loudly commended the councillor who leaked this information for allowing the students to know what goes on behind closed doors. But the councillor who breached confidentiality doesn’t deserve our praise. Rather, blame should have been put on the USC for their decision.

In general, the USSU is a very transparent and accountable organization that tends to run very smoothly. Incidents to this degree are actually quite rare. This precedent of transparency means that in order for information to be withheld, there must be a very, very good reason to do so. Three reasons for withholding the information were provided: to protect Ferwerda’s image and integrity, to protect the image of the USSU and to prevent a loss of trust in the University Students’ Council.

Trying to maintain the trust of students seems like a noble goal. However, I fail to see how the situation that unfolded was any better. Given the number of players involved, it seemed wrong to assume this information wouldn’t get out in some fashion. Even if it were kept secret, speculation and rumours of what happens in private meetings is often worse than what actually does take place. Distrust of the USSU is now greater because it seems the organization is trying to conceal its mistakes.

Council should always try to be transparent whenever possible. Granted, there is still need for “in camera” sessions when discussing an issue like this, but the final results of such a discussion should always be made public.

The person who leaked this information should not be regarded in a positive light because they did break laws. The information should have been released, but since it wasn’t, the councillor should not have disrespected the decision of students’ council and the policies that govern it.

All undergraduates are members of the USSU, and as such inherently agree to its bylaw. There is ample opportunity to change the bylaw, namely through annual general meetings. If one didn’t agree to “in camera” meetings, they could amend the bylaw to prevent such a practice. However, this has not happened, and therefore we as students have to accept that this may sometimes happen regardless of whether we agree.

What the leaker did was wrong, but what about the Sheaf? They did not break any actual rules. Confidentiality was breached when the information was leaked to the Sheaf, not when it was published. Also, remember that the Sheaf is in no way bound by the same regulations that council must follow. They didn’t break any written rules, but I also don’t agree with how it was covered.

As Stoicheff pointed out, at the beginning of the year the Sheaf decided to reduce its coverage of student politics. However, this reduction should have applied equally in all angles of the coverage. There used to be both positive and negative coverage of the USSU, but the reduction of coverage seem to have focused on reducing the positive USSU coverage while continuing to create stories on all of the USSU’s problems. This incident — as with other sensational USSU stories this year — was covered in great detail whereas new programs and successes of the executive were only mentioned briefly. Overall, this gives a negative light to a generally well-run organization.

As a campus newspaper, the Sheaf has an obligation to cover stories that would not be seen elsewhere, meaning stories that only affect our campus. Yes, student politics is petty, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Student politics is supposed to be a training ground for individuals to learn what a career in the political realm may be like. Without these petty conflicts they would not gain that experience. And there are certainly much larger, more relevant issues that need discussion, such as housing, sustainability, the cost of education and so on.

There was a chain of mistakes that caused the situation we are now in and VP Ferwerda, council, and the Sheaf are all partially at fault.


Graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf