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Congress rejects plan for Union renovation

Student Congress rejected the UCommons referendum Tuesday night, leaving it up to the student body to place the bill on the Feb. 8 ballot.

Only three of about 20 Congress members in attendance voted to approve the fee, which would charge every UNC $8 every semester for the next 30 years, beginning in the 2011-12 academic year.

Several Congress members said UCommons, the proposed second phase of renovation project for the Student Union, was an unnecessary move in a time of financial hardship. The project was met with its first unexpected resistance Jan. 11 when presented to the student affairs committee of Congress.

Student Union officials who came to the meeting said students deserve the right to vote on a fee increase that would fund renovations of the building’s bottom floor to provide meeting rooms and utilize the space better. Phase 1 of the project, already set to finish in August, will bring a Wendy’s and meeting rooms to the Student Union’s east wing.

“It’s in the best interest of the students to be able to vote on this, as the space is really under-utilized,” said Tyler Mills, president of the Student Union. “We have a cohesive plan for this.”

Although the bill failed in Congress, there are still options for advocates who want to see the referendum on the ballot Feb. 8.

Students have the opportunity to gather signatures of 10 percent of the student body in the form of petition to Student Body President Hogan Medlin.

Based on the fall 2010 head-count enrollment figure from the University registrar, a minimum of 2,939 signatures would be necessary, said Andrew Phillips, chairman of the Board of Elections.

If students succeed in gathering valid signatures, Medlin would direct the board to add the referendum to the ballot. The fee will be implemented if at least 2.5 percent of the student body votes on the measure and a majority of those students vote in its favor.

Don Luse, director of the Student Union, said he is confident the student body can gather the signatures necessary for petition because he has seen significant support so far.

“The UCommons project is one that is a valued proposition that I’d like students to consider,” Luse said. “It fulfills the needs of the campus today and tomorrow.”

Congress was concerned that its Jan. 11 committee decision was made preemptively. Two-thirds of the group needed to vote to move the bill off the unfavorable calendar so it could be debated Tuesday. The vote for this action was nearly unanimous. Congress members said they decided to reconsider the bill to avoid “losing legitimacy.”

The strongest opponents to the UCommons bill were graduate students, who said the project’s cost outweighed its benefits.

Graduate student and President Pro Tempore Alex Mills argued that the renovation was unnecessary, particularly for graduate students who rarely use the Student Union.

“They’re pushing this big plan with a hand-waving argument, but it’s not on graduate students’ list of concerns,” Mills said.

Mills and his graduate peers even opposed putting the referendum before the student body.

“If this bill goes to a referendum, this becomes a popularity contest,” Mills said.

“It is not fair to the minority population on campus: the graduate students.”

Graduate student Serena Witzke said that because Student Congress represents the student body, it is unnecessary for it to fall into the hands of the students.

But the bill was not entirely without support.

“You aren’t voting for this to pass. You are voting to let this go to the student body,” said Student Body Treasurer Dakota Williams, who authored the bill.

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“That is a less severe decision.”

Contact the University Editor at university@dailytarheel.com.

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