The Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG) has signed a lease that allows them to continue inhabiting their current space in the Rotunda until December 14, 2018, after which they will be evicted. The terms of the lease renewal were reached after multiple rounds of negotiations with the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS). During the finalization of the agreement, which revoked the previously-standing possibility of SFPIRG leasing space in the Maggie Benston Centre from the SFSS, SFPIRG stated that they were signing the agreement under duress.

In an email interview with The Peak, SFSS president Jas Randhawa responded to the SFPIRG’s statement of duress, writing that “whether or not SFPIRG claimed to sign their lease ‘under duress’ is a matter that SFPIRG can address. We do not believe it is appropriate for SFSS to characterize how SFPIRG was feeling.”

“We believe that they were given more than enough time to review and sign a lease extension,” Randhawa added.

Course of negotiations

In an interview with The Peak, SFPIRG Space Campaign coordinator Teresa Dettling recounted the course of the negotiations that ended in the final lease agreement. According to Dettling, the initial offer to extend SFPIRG’s sublease from its original expiration date in June 2018, came with the requirement that SFPIRG pay a $10,000 “security deposit requirement.”

Dettling called the security deposit “confusing because SFPIRG has been in this space for 20 years and never paid a damage deposit.” According to SFPIRG Director of Communications Craig Pavelich, the organization currently pays one dollar per year for rent — “a nominal amount required by law to create the contract” — as well as $610 per month for operating costs, which are calculated per square foot each year based on a pricing system designed by the University.

“SFPIRG doesn’t have $10,000 laying around,” added Dettling.

According to Dettling, SFPIRG drafted a letter to the SFSS to explain why the organization would not be able to pay the $10,000 to extend the sublease. In return, the SFSS offered SFPIRG a new offer without a damage deposit, but one that they would have to sign in 24 hours, or else the offer would be revoked.

Randhawa provided the SFSS perspective on the negotiations, writing that SFPIRG was provided with its original lease extension offer on April 5 with a deadline for acceptance on April 20. The original lease was offered with a $10,000 security deposit requirement, but the deposit requirement was later removed on April 19 following SFPIRG’s letter. The original deadline was maintained.

“There was no ‘contingency’ expressed by the SFSS,” wrote Randhawa. “We simply dropped the requirement and reminded them that they needed to meet the original deadline.”

“We believed that offering to remove the $10,000 security deposit was a sign of good faith.” – Jas Randhawa, SFSS president

Dettling spoke about how the final lease agreement did not meet all of SFPIRG’s requests, including that there not be an end date on the lease, thus mirroring the lease that the SFSS currently holds with SFU. Until the Student Union Building (SUB) is built, the SFSS, which is currently leasing the Rotunda from SFU, may continue its leases on those spaces.

“For them to give that to us is a compassionate thing to do,” said Dettling. “I don’t think it’s demanding [for us] to say, ‘hey, if this space is still available past December 14, it’s just gonna sit empty anyways. Couldn’t we just have a lease that allows us to stay until your lease ends with SFU.’ And they refused to do that.”

Randhawa responded in a follow-up with The Peak that the strict deadline for SFPIRG’s eviction was due to “the nature of large construction projects like the SUB, [which] means the date of completion is fluid.”

“We feel the most reasonable approach is to provide some certainty, so that they can plan accordingly.”

In the face of the unmet requests and the 24-hour deadline, SFPIRG signed the lease agreement, stating that they were doing so under duress.

“A new pattern of behaviour”

Shortly after the signing of the lease agreement, SFPIRG received an email notification from SFSS that the offer to house the student group in the Maggie Benston Centre following the end of their lease in the Rotunda was no longer on the table.

“I don’t think I’m unreasonable in saying that it was retaliation for us pushing to drop the $10,000,” said Dettling. “Because of the timing of it, and the fact that there was no explanation.

“We feel very bullied,” she said.

Randhawa responded to The Peak, stating that “the offer for MBC space was revoked because we simply cannot continue to dedicate the time, energy and resources to developing an agreement with a group that has consistently expressed that our offers for space are not good enough.”

“We understand that SFPIRG wanted space in the SUB and we understand their disappointment and concern in not being granted such space — we are students ourselves and understand the importance of being housed on campus. [. . .] SFPIRG has consistently rejected our offers and placed unreasonable conditions on accepting them.”

“From our viewpoint, it seems that they are more interested in taking an adversarial stance than they are in working with us to find a solution.” – Jas Randhawa, SFSS president

“We need to spend our time and energy on our student groups, who look to work with us in good faith.”

Dettling sees SFPIRG’s recent experiences as part of a larger trend in the interactions between student groups on campus and SFSS.

“There’s a real problem with how the SFSS is treating SFPIRG and other student groups. It’s not an equitable way to engage in [. . .] relationship-building.” – Teresa Dettling, SFPIRG Space Campaign coordinator

“This is a new pattern of behaviour.”

According to Dettling, the atmosphere for student groups on campus has significantly shifted from the past, when there was “a real camaraderie between all the student groups and societies.”

“That’s changed in the last three years, and it’s changed with the arrival of a CEO,” said Dettling, referring to SFSS CEO Martin Wyant, who joined the society as Executive Director in July 2015. “And with the arrival of the CEO came changes to the SFSS, policy changes,” added Dettling, referring to the SFSS Board Policies, many of which were adopted on September 18, 2015.

“The policy changes that were put in place is [sic] allowing the CEO to conduct himself like this.”

To the above point, Randhawa responded, “The SFSS has undergone some important change in the last three years, and this process is ongoing – but we need to be clear about the nature of this change.” He continued: “The board of the day sought to improve our stakeholder relationships, improve our support for clubs and student unions, ensure our services and operations are relevant and well-run, and to empower the board of directors to govern and engage with the student body. The hiring of our CEO was a critical part of this important, positive change.

“It is important to understand that this has been led and championed by the board of directors, so that we could better serve the student body at SFU. Change may be difficult, and we respect and understand that. However, becoming more professional in our dealings and ensuring our organization is best positioned to support our student groups and our membership is of upmost [sic] importance, and that is the driving principle behind how we conduct ourselves here at the SFSS.”

Emails sent to SFPIRG during the course of their negotiations with the SFSS indicated that Wyant would be reaching out to Pavelich to discuss the issue. “We feel like we have to go through Martin to get to the Board,” said Dettling. “It’s frustrating, it’s confusing, and it’s a little bit scary. “

Dettling stated the SFPIRG’s new strategy moving forward was to continue talks with SFU in the hopes of obtaining space for the organization. “Given the culture at the SFSS right now [. . .] for us to keep fighting [with the SFSS] for space, we don’t think it’s wise,” she said.

Moving forward

SFPIRG is looking forward to upcoming talks with SFU, which the organization hopes will yield positive results. “We’re hopeful that we can convey to SFU that we’re asking for this space for students,” said Dettling.

She mentioned that SFPIRG has been experiencing significant support from students and faculty who utilize the organization’s resources. At the time of this article, SFPIRG’s petition directed towards SFU president Andrew Petter and vice-provost and associate vice-president academic Peter Keller asking for appropriate campus space has obtained 611 signatures.

During her campaigning, Dettling recalled multiple situations where students reached out to her regarding their negative experiences with the SFSS, and she stated SFPIRG’s independence from the student society as another strength of the organization.

According to Dettling, unlike the Women’s Centre and Out on Campus, which as SFSS departments are run by staff that the SFSS CEO supervises and directs, SFPIRG offers “a site of resistance for people who want to disagree with the SFSS and want to change things there.”

“When we seek to eliminate [protests and disagreements] from a situation, we’re making a less democratic existence, and that’s really what’s going on up here.” – Teresa Dettling, SFPIRG Space Campaign coordinator

When The Peak asked if SFPIRG had a plan in case of being denied space on campus by SFU, Dettling did not hesitate to state, “We’re not leaving the campus on December 14.

“We’ll stay, because we have the right to be here,” said Dettling. “I think SFPIRG has earned the right to be here. We’ve been doing work for 35 years on campus [. . .] and in 2018, [. . .] if you look at just what’s going on in our society today, this type of work has to continue.”

“And it won’t continue [on campus] if SFPIRG isn’t allotted space.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep this place on campus,” concluded Dettling. “And I’m not alone.”