On Tuesday and Wednesday the student body will make an important decision for two of their campus media outlets, The Free Press and WMPG.
The Senate election ballot will have a referendum question asking students if they want to “discharge” the Student Communication Board. The move could help transfer financial control of The Free Press and WMPG from the SCB to the Student Senate.
If the referendum is approved by students, the SCB opponents in the Student Senate will be one step closer to dissolving the SCB, a buffer between the Senate and campus media organizations.
“Despite what people may say, this is about the Student Senate wanting direct control of student media,” said Steve Peoples, executive editor of The Free Press. “This is about the basic right to free speech.”
Many senators and members of the SCB have been disappointed in the way the SCB has worked in the past. The Senate voted on March 22 to strip the SCB of its authority.
Several senators were willing to give the SCB a second chance at Friday’s Senate meeting after revisions were made in the SCB constitution earlier in the week. Their concerns were also alleviated by changes The Free Press made earlier in the month to curtail advertising revenue losses. The Senate voted Friday to withdraw its proposal to discharge the SCB, but did not remove the question from this week’s ballot.
The effort to abolish the SCB is led by Commuter Sen. Ben Hoffman.
“From the very beginning of this year I’ve wanted to kill the SCB,” he said.
Hoffman wants the Senate to be in charge of the campus media entities.
Commuter Sen. Justin LaBerge acknowledges the positive changes made to the SCB following the Senate’s initial proposal to discharge the organization. He said the current system allows for sufficient accountability and would help the Senate run more efficiently.
“Worried about accountability? It exists,” he said. “It lightens our work load when we delegate power to entities.”
LaBerge said the SCB isn’t a perfect organization but is satisfied enough with the changes not to abolish it.
If the student body votes to abolish the SCB, it will still take a two-thirds vote by the Senate or the SCB itself to actually shut down the SCB. Such a vote could happen anytime before the semester ends.
If the SCB is shut down, the Senate would have complete financial control of The Free Press and WMPG.
In a meeting last week Senate Parliamentarian Matthew Amoroso said the Senate would have the power to shut down The Free Press and WMPG. He clarified his statement at Friday’s meeting. “It can’t be shut down on a whim,” he said. “But there is a certain amount of authority the Senate has.”
The SCB was established five years ago to provide financial oversight and create a buffer between the student government and WMPG and The Free Press. It is made up of members from The Free Press, WMPG, faculty, media professionals, senators and students.
The SCB annually approves the budget for The Free Press and WMPG. The Senate gives 30 percent of the student activity fee each year to the SCB. The funding is divided between the two campus media organizations. This way the Senate cannot control funds or dictate how the media businesses are run.
“SCB protects the right of all USM students to have objective information about the University and Student Senate operations,” said Susan Swain, associate director of Media and Community Relations and the chair of The Free Press Advisory Board.
Swain said the Senate used its control in negative ways against The Free Press before there was an SCB.
The Senate controlled the paper by withholding the adviser’s contract, questioning stipends for editors and by refusing to authorize purchase orders for operational expenses.
“In general the Senate was using its power to intimidate, ” Swain said.
Senate Chair Marcy Muller brought concerns to the SCB meeting in January addressing the financial aspects. Members of the Senate were annoyed that no one in the SCB was making changes, and therefore addressed the problem by voting to discharge the SCB in late March. Members of the Senate believed the SCB is not working to its full capacity and a change needed to happen.
Muller said the SCB holds infrequent meetings and is disorganized.
Muller said members of the Senate questioned if the SCB is successfully performing the job that it was created to do. It was not until after the March 22 vote that the Senate officially notified the SCB of its plan to get rid of the group.
Peoples said the action was sneaky at best, especially because the SCB had met a day earlier and the Senate representative on the board didn’t bring up any concerns.
“It was totally backroom politics,” Peoples said. “Everyone agrees that there are problems. But you don’t get rid of a group without telling them.”
Over a span of two weeks, SCB members, senators, members of The Free Press and WMPG quickly revised many aspects of the SCB constitution to address the problems.
For the next academic year the SCB will be comprised of 12 voting members, all of which are students: three students-at-large, three student senators, three WMPG student representatives and three Free Press student representatives The group will also meet monthly rather than quarterly.
Peoples said The Free Press budgeted for a part-time office manager next year to alleviate financial difficulties the paper had in the past regarding collections.
The changes were presented to the Senate during last Friday’s meeting.
The Senate met for two and a half hours arguing on whether to dissolve the SCB. The compromise was approved by a vote of 7 to 5 to rescind the discharge. But the Senate voted to leave the referendum on the ballot.
The group used impassioned speeches and parliamentary maneuvers to get its way.
“If we put this out to referendum the 400 students going to vote have no clue about what the SCB does,” LaBerge said. “This is not going to be enough for anyone to make a valid decision.”
At one point four senators walked out of the meeting to lose a quorum, a parliamentary maneuver intended to keep the SCB issue on the ballot.
“To make a stand you sometimes have to walk,” Resident Sen. Andrew Goodman said.
The senators who walked out said they wanted to give students a voice in the decision to eliminate the SCB.
Hoffman said faith needs to be in students and their opinions must be heard.
LaBerge expressed concern that the majority of students don’t have any idea what the SCB is or does.
“The students are not prepared to deal with this,” said LaBerge, “Pure democracy doesn’t exist, only in small tribes or on ‘Survivor.'”
Jim Rand, station manager for WMPG expressed a similar concern.
“This referendum can be very destructive,” said Rand. “The vote will be invalid.”
He explained this is because students have had no time to become informed about the real issues.
Some of the senators expressed clear disgust with the way their peers were acting.
“The faith of democracy has gone down the toilet,” said Matt Amoroso, Senate parliamentarian.
“I’m thoroughly disgusted by the Senate’s actions. You represent me and my activity fee,” said Jeanie Gorham, a sophomore and member of the SCB.
Peoples said instead of dissolving the SCB, there are members willing to make changes, rather than allowing the student government direct control over campus media.
In response to comments that the Senate would use its authority to censor the press if the SCB were disbanded, Kathleen Pease, coordinator of Student Senate Operations, gave an example of an incident that occurred in the past.
She said one year the Senate tried to withhold money from The Free Press but the University administration prohibited it. It was a year when The Free Press frequently wrote negative stories about the Senate and the perception was that the Senate was trying to punish the paper. During that time the paper refused to turn over financial information to the Senate.
It was discovered the next year that money had been embezzled from the paper and the Senate inquiry into The Free Press’ finances was justified.
Gorham editor Erin Zwirn can be reached at [email protected]