The Saskatoon Engineering Students’ Society is under scrutiny from its members after executive elections were cancelled and major changes were made to its election policy.
The SESS represents the University of Saskatchewan’s entire engineering student body and often hosts events and liaises with the dean.
However, only about 40 per cent of the 1,600 engineering students are dues-paying members and even fewer are regularly active within the society. Engineering students can pay $10 per term to become a member of the SESS at any time except elections.
For the past couple of weeks candidates have been campaigning for next year’s SESS executive positions.
Members of the organization originally voted for next year’s executive on Feb. 14 and 15 but elections were cancelled just hours before the polls closed due to “a misunderstanding of the SESS election rules.” SESS members were notified by email and were informed of a council meeting to be held Feb. 25 to clarify the rules in preparation for a new election.
In the first round of elections, one of the four presidential candidates was a current executive member of the SESS. That candidate and one other candidate were members of the board of directors, which governs the society.
The latest round of elections began with nominations closing March 5 and campaigning beginning the following day. The new policies will be followed in this election.
Current president Rebecca Steffenson said that for the past five years the position of president has garnered little interest from candidates.
“This is the first contested presidential campaign, which is why we were really watching the rules more closely than usual,” Steffenson said.
There was a crackdown on what candidates could say during the election. The SESS Elections Returning Officer found one candidate guilty of slander for writing “No love for the enemy” on the election banner where candidates had all signed their names. The candidate was given a warning but remained on the ballot.
“As far as we could tell, there was nothing in his campaign that could be considered slander or personal attacks,” said Erin Placatka, a member of SESS.
“That was kind of a warning flag that something fishy was going on” with the elections, she said.
The specific violations for cancelling the election have not been made public, Steffenson said. She wrote in an email to the Sheaf that third-party campaigning was an issue that the SESS did not know how to deal with so they cancelled the elections in order to have more time to research other groups’ election policies.
The day of the council meeting, an email was sent out to SESS members four hours before the meeting informing them that the society’s policy manual would be updated. The SESS did not abide by their policy of making proposed changes or amendments to their manual available to members a minimum of three school days prior to the council meeting.
The majority of the changes that were passed focused on elections and campaigning. This was why the original elections were cancelled, Steffenson said.
“Having an election this year, it was very apparent that there are some holes in our policy. We decided policy was kind of being broken, but we didn’t have any rules for what to do in the case of if policy was being broken,” Steffenson said. “We decided to call off the elections and do new elections where we have better rules.”
According to the policy changes, the Elections Returning Officer is now the Elections Returning Committee, which consists of a chairperson and up to five other members — of whom one must be a current executive member and one a board member, and three of whom must be graduate or undergraduate engineering students.
The committee is responsible for organizing, supervising and chairing the elections and election forums. It is also responsible for ensuring that election policies are followed and may reprimand candidates at their discretion.
Although he is supportive of some of the new changes and additions to the SESS policy, member Kyle Weisgarber is critical of the makeup of the new elections committee.
“They’ve taken all of the power that was distributed before, and part of it was to the board of directors who have to make the final decisions, and they encompassed all of that power in one group,” Weisgarber said.
The SESS also monitored its policy on campaign posters closely this year to assure that candidates removed their posters by midnight Feb. 14, the first day of voting.
On the second day of voting, Feb. 15, Placatka received a complaint that her poster supporting a presidential candidate, published on behalf of Engineers Without Borders, had not been taken down before the voting began.
At the time, any third party could publish election-related material as long as it did not advertise on behalf of the candidate or appear in newspapers, handouts or newsletters.
Placatka said the SESS tried to hold the candidate her poster supported responsible — even though he was not involved at all — before telling her that she, personally, was not allowed to publish election-related material during the voting period.
Following the first election, policy was established regarding situations in which a third party publishes material for or referring to a candidate. The ERC must inform the candidate of the violation. The candidate then has four hours to have the third party remove the material. If the material is not removed, the candidate may face a penalty of disqualification — even if voting has already begun — if the ERC decides that the candidate did not “demonstrate the appropriate effort level to resolve the issue.”
Placatka said these new policies were enforced for her before they were made official and that the SESS is restricting people’s freedom to support candidates.
However, Steffenson maintains that the new policy was created with the society’s best interests in mind.
“What we’re doing is not necessarily trying to control the third party, but making sure that the candidates are doing what they can to uphold our constitution and policy.”
The SESS policy manual defines character defamation as “any mention of other candidates’ abilities and/or relationships, individual members of the society or the society in general, or students of the College of Engineering on a general or individual basis.”
The ERC may reprimand a candidate at their discretion.
Placatka said this new policy is confusing for members because of how it limits election discussions.
“It sounds like the policies restrict either party from voicing an opinion in the election and trying to discuss that with other people in the college.”[box type=”info”]Corrections 03/07/13: In an earlier edition of this story, we wrote, “In the first round of elections, three of the four presidential candidates were current executive members of the SESS.” Only one presidential candidate was a current member of the SESS. We also wrote that three members of the Elections Returning Committee “must be graduate engineering students.” ERC members can be both undergraduate and graduate students. And we wrote that the SESS board of directors issued a warning to one candidate about vandalizing an election banner. It was the Elections Returning Officer who issued the warning and not the SESS board of directors. We apologize for these errors. [/box]
Photo: Kristen Schneider