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Members of the ACFC listen to presenters during OSPIRG’s hearing.

Yesterday night OSPIRG went in front of the ASUO’s Athletics and Contracts Committee. OSPIRG’s members went through a presentation talking about all the “wonderful, amazing and good-hearted” things OSPIRG does. There were some particularly ridiculous moments. One Lane Community College OSPIRG member (I have no idea why they were there) said during public testimony, “If there was no OSPIRG, there’d be dead whales all over the ocean.” Immediately to my right, CJ Ciaramella had to give him a knock.

Of the people who spoke during the public testimony portion, only three of them were against funding OSPIRG’s current request–Me, Lyzi Diamond and CJ Ciaramella. In part, Diamond’s testimony quoted from a Matt Petryni opinion column that appeared in the Daily Emerald in 2008, “More than two-thirds of its ASUO stipend goes not to campus work, but to staffers in Portland, Ore.”

I also highlighted the point that the issue at hand, as it always has been with OSPIRG, is not whether they do good things. It is merely the proper use of student funding. Further, OSPIRG’s budget accounts for $103,000 to paid employees, $70,047 on non-student, non-campus employees alone. I noted that over 60% of their budget directly says that it does not go to students, and that responsible fiscal oversight by the ASUO was not possible with OSPIRG’s current funding model.

One awkward moment happened immediately after I spoke, as I saw CJ Ciaramella outside, and motioned to him. He didn’t see me, so I walked to the door to go get him. A man, probably in his 50s, stopped my as I walked by. His name is Paul Tanner and he is a student at LCC. He asked me, “Are you leaving?” To which I replied no, I was merely going to get CJ. He then told me that, “Because if you get up there and make a statement like that, you damn well better sit here and listen to what others have to say.”

At that point, I removed his hand from my shoulder and told him, “Don’t ever fucking talk to me like that again.” I got CJ, came back inside, and stopped by Tanner to reiterate how he was to speak to me. By the way, the meeting lasted about 3 hours. After about hour 2, I could no longer find Paul Tanner in the room, and he was indeed gone before the meeting ended. Thanks for staying, Paul.

That wasn’t the first run-in the overly aggressive Tanner, a non-student, has had with a UO student. Diamond told me earlier this week Tanner, who was canvassing OSPIRG’s petition, stopped and asked her if she wanted to sign. Diamond told him that she didn’t want to spend her student fees off campus and asked him how much of OSPIRG’s money goes on campus. Tanner reportedly responded with, “Does it matter?” Further, when she declined to sign, citing previous knowledge of OSPIRG’s budget, Diamond told me, “He just yelled at me.”

The meeting went on much too long, and far too many people spoke. Diego Hernandez spoke at one point, bringing up our first (of three) Sam Dotters-Katz reference of the night (we also had two Commentator references. Drink!). He said that the defunding of OSPIRG, “Was an attack on the ideology of what OSPIRG stands for.” He also said that students fund many programs they don’t neccessarily agree with, “If I had control over my I-Fee, I wouldn’t fund the Oregon Commentator.” This time, I gave him a knock. Might as well, right?

The entire meeting was based on pro-OSPIRG students talking about how “good” OSPIRG is, without addressing the concerns of the ACFC–and the ASUO last and this year–that were deemed important. That is, the return of students investment in OSPIRG and their funding model, which pays for non-student advocates. Many times it was brought up that the OSA–the Oregon Student Association–has a similar model. ACFC Chair Alex McCaffetry noted that the OSA differed from OSPIRG in that, “The OSA does not have any paid advocates.” (Advocates or lobbyists being paid by student funding is illegal, by the way)

CJ Ciaramella was on the speaker’s list, one where many OSPIRG people had just finished talking about all the great things OSPIRG did. He started off by telling them that they should solicit private donations, and that it would surely be easy to do so if OSPIRG truly was doing such wonderous things. He finished by asking the room, which probably had around 35 people stuffed in it, ” You all think OSPIRG is pretty great, right? So how many people here privately donate to OSPIRG, on a month to month basis?” Only three people raised their hand–one volunteer from LCC and two of OSPIRG’s paid staffers. “Yeah… that’s what I thought,” said Ciaramella.

Failed ASUO Presidential candidate Ryan McCarrel spoke right after CJ, storming about the room like an idiot. He directed his speech at CJ saying, “You want people to willingly donate to OSPIRG? THAT’S WHAT THE I-FEE IS! WE IMPOSE THE I-FEE ON OURSELVES!” Of course, that is not what the I-Fee is. We don’t impose the I-Fee on ourselves, the school does. I don’t ever remember being asked whether or not I wanted to pay $195 a term, they just sort of yanked it out of my bank account.

OSPIRG, confusingly, didn’t seem to understand the opposition towards them at all. OSPIRG student director Charles Denson said of the paid, non-student advocates, “That’s what we want to spend our money on.” Once ACFC member Ben Eckstein suggested a compromise on a lower budget, OSPIRG told the ACFC that they were basically free to choose what programs to drop–meaning any of their issues–like healthcare, textbooks etc. Unfortunately that was not an option as ACFC member Hailey Sheldon pointed out, “This committee is not in a position to cut out portions of your budget.” Essentially, the ACFC wouldn’t know what is important to OSPIRG or not, and they’d have to make suggestions themselves.

For the sake of saving you some time reading, the rest of the meeting went like this:

  • Hailey Sheldon suggested OSPIRG come back with a new budget.
  • Ben Eckstein suggested random numbers the budget should be changed to, right then and there ($60,000, then $30,000) which was highly irregular, as Sheldon pointed out.
  • Getachew Kassa and Emma Kallaway spoke in favor of OSPIRG
  • OSPIRG said they’d at least 3 or 4 paid staffers, “Bare bones.”
  • OSPIRG said they’d been given $80,000 for this year by the state PIRG. Then a non-student staffer told the ACFC, “Look at how much we’ve done this year with nothing. Without your money!” fully forgetting that not two minutes before one of the OSPIRG kids had mentioned the $80k.
  • Alex McCafferty engaged in a long line of questioning in which he was trying to decipher how the state PIRG and OSPIRG were different.
  • McCafferty made the point that 4 issues were the same as the state PIRG out of a total of “5 or 6” and that this was not a viable contract, as it was a duplication of services student programming already does on campus.

The rest of the night was particularly hilarious. OSPIRG executive director (non-student)  Dave Rosenthal was asked direct questions by the ACFC several times but “Had to ask my boss first before answering” while motioning to the OSPIRG kids. “That’s not theater, by the way. That’s how it really is,” he said. (It was theater, however, as according to Robert’s Rules of Order, when you are yielded to by whomever has the floor, you are allowed to talk. Rosenthal didn’t need to “ask permission” from anyone, he had been asked a direct question, hence, permission. Regardless of his position with OSPIRG, Rosenthal seemed like a massive tool). Of course who knows how OSPIRG really works, as earlier this year I asked the OSPIRG kids directly how their student funding was used. They told me that it was pooled together by the state PIRG and distributed by them accordingly–by the non-student PIRG.

The confusion over the status of the state-PIRG and OSPIRG was ridiculous as well, and Alex McCafferty ventured into the tangled web. Essentially, the state OSPIRG is a non-profit, but since Southworth doesn’t allow for student money to pay for lobbyists, it is filed under a different tax filing than the student OSPIRG. Out of “5 or 6” issues, the state OSPIRG and the student OSPIRG work on 4 similar ones. They also share paid staffers. Charles Denson told McCafferty that, “strict time logs are kept so they don’t work on both.” Confused yet? I know I am.

Sen. Demic Tipitino stood up at one point, and told OSPIRG that they needed to fix their budget, “Sorry (I was late), I was at a budget hearing for the 24-hour library, a service that directly benefits I-Fee paying students on campus [many knocks from us]. As a Senator, I have to tell you that most programs use money on things like pencils, paper etc. This is one of those new programs. After a while, they come to PFC and they grow their budget. Then 10 years later, that’s when they get their first paid staffer, and even then, it’s a student staffer [OSPIRG wants to pay 15]. I don’t want you spending the majority of your money off-campus. I don’t want to pay for things and people in Salem I don’t care about. I’m a student here, at the University of Oregon. You should be paying for things in Eugene and at the University. If you come to Senate, we’re going to vote you down. I guarantee you. But if you spend that $60,000 [one of the random numbers Eckstein threw out for partial funding] on this campus, I’d vote for you right now.” One of the LCC girls whispered to her friend that “It’s not new, it’s been around for 30 years.” Of course, what they fail to understand is, in the eyes of the ASUO, OSPIRG is a new student group–hence the fancy new funding process. And Tipitino’s point (and further down, Weintraub’s) was that new programs can’t just ask for that much money.

Ben Eckstein didn’t seem to understand the opposition, as he regained the floor right after Tipitino and said, “I ride LTD and I don’t see UO students driving the buses!” That got some knocks from all the OSPIRG kids. Of course, the difference there, as Eckstein must have missed, is that LTD is a Eugene area service that literally serves every single student, while Tipitino’s opposition to OSPIRG was their non-campus employees and only their non-campus employees. I am guessing that Eckstein hadn’t thought about that crucial difference before opening his mouth.

Hailey Sheldon had mentioned (about an hour before Ben Eckstein thought it was a good idea) that OSPIRG should come back with a fixed budget proposal. Sheldon said she was frustrated that OSPIRG had not shown up to the meeting with any other suggestions for funding models, “We have yet to receive, and for me this is two years running, an alternate funding model.” McAfferty reiterated that statement, “I’m disappointed we have not been provided with alternate funding options. This didn’t fly last year, and it’s not going to fly this year.”

Ultimately, the night hinged on the fact that OSPIRG, although they’d had a huge fiasco ending with their defunding last year, had not changed anything about their budget proposal. Whether it was from stupidity or greed, I cannot say. Essential changes needed to be made, the ACFC felt, in order for them to consider even a partial funding of the group. Even Sen. Sandy Weintraub stood up and told OSPIRG they needed to make some concessions, “You need to change some things. I’m tired of hearing the same speech. And that’s from a friend, guys. You can’t just ask for $100,000 after last year.”

The scope of OSPIRG’s work was called into question when ACFC member Phil Gong questioned the reality of OSPIRG’s issues being ones students could hope to solve, “I’ve noticed your issues are huge, complex issues. Global warming and homelessness? They had a meeting in Copenhagen about global warming, and they still haven’t figured out how to solve it. Is it really feasible for you to solve it?”

Although it has been a favorite their thing to do lately, indeed one non-student OSPIRG staffer cited the ASUO mission as saying, “[The ASUO] works on campus, city, state, and federal-level campaigns.” ACFC Chair Alex McCafferty pointed out that it was not a student programming meeting, it was a contracts committee, “The point of the contracts committee, specifically, is to decide what contracts need to be made for benefit on this campus.” Further, McCafferty pointed out that we already have on-campus advocacy through other student groups for most of OSPIRG’s activities, “At this point in time, it’s not a contract. It’s a duplication of services.”

The meeting ended with a motion being made to table the issue for next week until OSPIRG can come up with an alternative funding model. Again, why they did not come with one prepared is beyond me. They came back with the same proposal they did last time. Do I need to cite the ol’ “definition of insanity” cliche? Sheldon warned OSPIRG that they better come back with something good, “It doesn’t matter if you think that what we’re asking is irrelevant. You need to convince us that OSPIRG [sending money off-campus] is relevant [to UO students/campus].” In part, Sheldon laid out what she wanted from OSPIRG, “A list of a required number of campus visits from those non-student employees, and what they will be doing here on campus, what they will be speaking about. We can’t change your budget for you, you need to alter it, even if you think it’s strange. And if you don’t change it and come to me, don’t get your hopes up. You need to come to me [with a new budget].”

Overall, it seems like OSPIRG just doesn’t take the hint, on either fronts. The first being that they cannot submit the same budget to the same people who rejected it last year and expect a different result. The other, however, seems to be a complete lack of understanding of why people (like myself) oppose funding OSPIRG. It is not, as Diego Hernandez said during the meeting, because anyone believes OSPIRG is “evil” or “doesn’t do good things.” It is merely the efficiency with which our mandated student taxes are spent.

If OSPIRG changed their program model, and only covered expenses for things like clipboards to send students around campus to register other UO students to vote, that would be an excellent use of money. Similarly, since OSPIRG’s members are all involved with advocacy, I’m sure they could all find other similar, on-campus activities with which to spend their money (like getting rid of disposable water bottles). Of course, I heard all throughout the evening how important OSPIRG’s non-student advocates are. But the point is (and McCafferty indeed mentioned this to OSPIRG) that they could just as easily lower their scope and send UO students and UO students only to Salem and lobby themselves, much like the OSA. I understand that changing that one key difference–the non-employee staffers–would alter the entire structure of OSPIRG. But they would find little opposition, I think, if they merely used all of their money on campus. But they won’t.

At the end of the day, OSPIRG is going to come back to ACFC, but I doubt they will include any kind of funding plan that does not include what Charles Denson called their “barebones” operating costs, “The executive director, the campus organizing director and the campus organizer.” On that point, McCafferty said, “If we only partially fund them, it seems that Charles [Denson] is saying it would declaw them–and I don’t think that would be a benefit to the students. And at full funding, they are duplicating services.”

  1. Dr. Feliz says:

    OSPIRG cannot and will not come with a real budget because this shit is a scam. How much of our money will go to USPIRG, OSPIRG (State), Environment Oregon…shit they don’t even know because it gets put into one fund.

    I feel bad for OSPIRG kids, but Dave Rosenshits can sit on a stick and spin. He should be charged with fraud.

  2. Matt Petryni says:

    Good to see all’s well that ends well.

    Anyway, Dane, very interesting and informative post, thanks.

    “The meeting ended with a motion being made to table the issue for next week until OSPIRG can come up with an alternative funding model. Again, why they did not come with one prepared is beyond me.”

    In addressing this completely legitimate question, I think it’s because they can’t. OSPIRG, whether it realizes it or not, is operating on an outdated “business” model and doesn’t quite know how to adapt… yet.

    Allow me to try to explain.

    Back in the 1970s, when OSPIRG was founded, there was really no mechanism – ie. the internet – by which students could organize and petition their state government for reforms. As a result, it was often very difficult, if not impossible, for the student voice to carry any weight with legislators when put up against the union and party machines who got those people elected.

    Enter OSPIRG. OSPIRG allows students to become lobbyists, to provide thinktank-like research on issues important to students, and to push for the issues that students care about. To determine what issues students care about, the original OSPIRG had a student board elected through the ASUO elections process – yes, the ACFC was not responsible for OSPIRG, they were OSPIRG – and those students would set the OSPIRG (state PIRG included) agenda. I thought that was a pretty good model, actually, and I would have been easily convinced to vote for it. (So it’s no surprise it had massive student support when it was originally started.)

    What went wrong? I’m not sure exactly. I spent a lot of time researching this when I worked for the Emerald, and it was difficult to determine how precisely OSPIRG morphed from part-and-parcel component of the elected student government to contracted service funded in part (maybe) by the state PIRG, which is now a completely separate private entity (though it shares an office and staff, kinda). Maybe a more thorough study of the Emerald archives or the Commentator archives might reveal something I missed. I know at least as late as the mid-1980s, they were still elected by the entire student body.

    By the mid-1990s, they seem to have moved toward “psuedo-program,” and the coverage of them in the Emerald drops off to mainly talking about their occasional reports and theatrical events. In 1998, the students take an active opposition to the program. The Emerald begins to write increasingly harsh criticism of OSPIRG in editorials; but not without providing suggestions about how they could maybe improve. After a while, it becomes increasingly clear OSPIRG has no interest in changing, or even changing the way they’re talking, and these days, entire ASUO electioneering machines have been virtually created and maintained on getting rid of OSPIRG alone. It’s really a mess.

    I know a lot of the problem is that students don’t need the kind of access OSPIRG was once critical for in the 1970s. Or at least, not in the same way. Because of the internet, and electronic money, students can individually donate to thinktanks and lobbyists that represent their interests – ie. Greenpeace or the OSA. There are also wayyy more thinktanks and lobbyist groups than there were in 1970, so the umbrella group approach is less valuable than it once was. Perhaps this is why OSPIRG stopped resembling a student-run program and moved more toward a privately-funded model like a Greenpeace. But this transition alone should not mean it is not valuable.

    There actually is and should be a place for OSPIRG in the ASUO, but they really need to change the way they do business. Barring that, they at least need to dramatically change the way they talk about the way they do business. Despite being a known sharp critic of OSPIRG, I’m more along the lines of a Sandy Weintraub than I am a CJ Ciaramella.

    With modern lobbyists – err, “advocates” – funders expect to have more access and control. We expect to be involved; we expect transparency. It needs to be clear what OSPIRG does and when, and for who. Especially with pseudo-public student dollars, we can’t have an organization that’s pretending to be two separate organizations; we can’t have an organization making up platitudes about who they work for. It just creates confusion, uncertainty, and ultimately disdain. This is not just necessary to win back the support of ASUO people; I’d argue it’s necessary for their private development as well.

    So I guess I’m trying to say that I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with paying for services off-campus – after all, LTD is mostly off-campus or anything wrong with using “tax dollars” to hire lobbyists. But a lot of OSPIRG’s problems revolve around the fact they want the service flexibility of program – like most student groups – with the lack of transparency that’s afforded a contracted service.

    The problem with this “have it all” approach is that most contracted services – LTD, student football tickets, whatever – are relatively simple programs that directly serve students, they’re unsophisticated outlays. It’s easy to see what the students are getting and what they’re paying, so more scrutiny is of less value. We pay this much; we get bus service. OSPIRG, though, is less visible: we pay this much, we get broad-based “advocacy” (note: lobbying may or may not be illegal, according to non-profit status) on issues that may or may not be directed by students in places that may or may not be Eugene. We just know so little about it; and fundamentally, they don’t make it easy to know much.

    Make the services clear and obvious, make the funding model transparent, and make it clear you can actually legally deliver on your promises about effective advocacy, and this whole debate will change dramatically. (Sorry for the length of this post.)

  3. Old Senator says:

    Whoever wrote this blog should buy a copy of The Elements of Style written by William Strunk JR. and E.B. White; it is quite useful and entertaining to read.

  4. Old Senator says:

    This blog posting was painfully hard to read; it was poorly written. I wasn’t able to fully picture what was going on during the meeting, however, I understand what the consensus is regarding the funding of OSPERG.

    Try proof reading your text before posting it next time

  5. Orev says:

    His name could be Rumplestiltskin, as long as he votes against OSPIRG!

  6. Sarah says:

    It’s Alex McCafferty, not McAfferty.

  7. Gsim says:

    I can’t believe that scuzball put his meathooks on you. Your self control in not karate chopping that old geezer is amazing.

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