NUGSS EGM Leaves Students Uncertain

Tierney Watkinson | Team Member

Last month NUGSS held an Extraordinary General Meeting in order to engage with undergraduate students on the issues and information surrounding last year’s revelation that the society had run into financial trouble through indelicate managements of funds. NUGSS General Manager Duncan Malkinson started by briefly outlining NUGSS’ finances. According to Malkinson, The Moose’s financial numbers have experienced a slight drop, but seem to be holding. Degrees Coffee, on the other hand, has seen increased performance. Malkinson continued his presentation by revealing that the last three years of accumulated debt for student UPASSes were paid in full to BC Transit, thanks to $108,000 forwarded from UNBC. That debt is owed directly to the university. As a result, $27,000 per year will act as a “hit to our budget” in order to pay off this debt. Malkinson touched upon a “five year plan” to pay off accumulated debts. He also noted that the not for profit efforts of the society– like Northern Students Give Back–were consistently successful. Grant Bachand from CFUR raised a question about a $30,000 deficit with the Thirsty Moose that Malkinson mentioned, because he could not see it on the visual presentation. Malkinson clarified that he was exaggerating, and pointed out the true numbers: a $23,000 deficit.

Next, there was a discussion about the composition of the NUGSS board. Previously there were eleven members when the board is full: the President, four Vice Presidents, and six Associate Directors. The board presented those in attendance with the option for a new structure consisting of eight board members: a primary Director or President, four Directors rather than Vice Presidents, and three Representative positions. In effect three current AD positions will be kept but their titles will change, becoming the Women’s Representative, the Sustainability Representative, and the Aboriginal Representative. When questioned about these titles, which seem less authoritative than “Director”, Shannon Williams (AD Women’s Representative) claimed that the title of “Representative” is simply less “awkward” to say than “Woman’s Director”, etc. (Note: while the names of the new positions were not read out in full at the meeting, they are as follows: President, Director of Internal Affairs, Director of External Affairs, Director of Finance, Director of Student Affairs, Sustainability Representative, Aboriginal Representative, and Women’s Representative.) When questioned about the effects of the change upon NUGSS’ budget, it was revealed that savings would not be significant. Cunningham confirmed that NUGSS would see approximately $8500 in savings over one year from cutting three positions. The amount spent on honorariums, currently changes with every year so these future savings would also vary. When questioned by an audience member, Cunningham assured those in attendance that in the case of a split vote within the board (which would be eight members), “the Chairperson” would break the tie. A motion to adopt this new board structure was put forward to a vote. The vote was unanimous—none in attendance opposed.

Next, the President brought forward ideas to save the Thirsty Moose. The first idea was a proposed $6.50 increase to NUGSS fees for students. This addition would raise NUGSS fees to $42.19 total per semester. Raychill Snider, AD Sustainability Rep, assured the audience that this new fee was not meant to be a crutch, but rather a way to give the Moose more time to reorganize and come up with a sustainable plan. It was then revealed that the Food and Beverage Manager has left the organization. A student in attendance asked for further explanation of the fee’s purpose beyond covering the Moose’s losses. The fee is meant to be permanent, Snider admitted. If the fee is approved, she said, it is meant to be more of a “contingency fund”. As discussions continued, it was made clear that this fee would only affect the Prince George Campus. When asked how we could be guaranteed fair management of these fees after the Moose was in the clear, Cunningham replied that NUGSS was looking into committing to having separate funds for certain fees; for example any cushion from the Health and Dental Fund would be saved as such and could only be touched for Health and Dental related needs. This way, the board could directly avoid misuse of funds. This fee increase will be the subject of a referendum on March 20th and 21st. Cunningham also mentioned a possible, voluntary fee or cover charge for faculty members and other UNBC employees for use of the Thirsty Moose should this fee be instated in order to be more equitable. A second idea to rescue the Moose, if this referendum fails, is for NUGSS to look into renting out the Moose to an outside party. Otherwise, NUGSS might be forced to close it down entirely. “Not just anyone” would be selected to lease the Thirsty Moose, students were assured.

The motion for an Oversight Board (OB) was then presented by Chris King. He introduced the idea of five elected members from the student body, with the purpose of supervising the NUGSS board. In extreme circumstances, this board could intervene on NUGSS board decisions or impeach a member. King spoke of eliminating the “awkward power dynamic” that currently exists within the NUGSS board, which at present is expected to police itself and its members internally. King stated the aim of an Oversight Board is to “create a culture of engagement” among the student body. The OB would meet once a month, for 1.5 to 3 hours per meeting as necessary. The single meeting a month, King claimed, would help to accommodate students who have heavy course loads and thus couldn’t attend multiple or weekly meetings.

Snider then took the podium, assuring the crowd that the OB was not intended to govern or to prove that the current board was committing any malfeasance. Considering the financial problems accumulated from previous boards, Snider stated that she and others who were proposing the OB did not believe anyone currently on the board was capable of embezzlement, but “we need to acknowledge that it could happen.” The OB would be a second party who worked to ensure that oversights or simple mistakes, perhaps not seen initially by the board itself, were not made. She further stated that OB members would not be volunteers—they would be paid for their time. She hoped the board would serve to improve transparency and student input, eliminate or at least lessen the concentrated power that is the NUGSS board at present, and increase the diversity of students involved with student politics. To conclude, she stated that the Oversight Board’s main goal was transparency. “We exist to serve students,” she said, and she hopes the board will allow NUGSS to do that more efficiently.

David Schroeter, AD of Events, followed Snider to speak at the podium; unlike Snider, he was abjectly opposed to the idea of an OB. Schroeter reminded the audience that proposed OB boards had been rejected on four separate occasions at UNBC, and even in cases where a motion for an OB went through, such a board has failed before and there was no guarantee that it would not fail again. Despite the proponents’ claims that it would make the NUGSS board more accountable and transparent, Schroeter insisted, NUGSS already has events and public meetings in place to increase transparency, such as town halls, AGMs, and board meetings. Despite Snider and King’s assurances that it is not the OB’s intent, Schroeter persisted that the existence of an OB presumes guilt in the governing party, and NUGSS’ problems are not the result of a conspiracy. Schroeter added that an OB board would cost the school approximately $6000 annually simply to cover the attendance meetings—this wouldn’t include other expenses associated with running an Oversight Board. As well, there was no guarantee that all five positions on the proposed board would be filled, or indeed remain filled. He worried about the potential for the OB’s power to impeach any board member they did not approve of, thereby implying potential corruption or at least overly harsh judgement within an OB itself. Schroeter went on to question the ability of elected students with no experience with NUGSS analyzing specific NUGSS activities, in addition to their willingness to take the time to examine the stacks of necessary paperwork.

A discussion period amongst the audience was then organized. When questioned how students, who were putting in the minimal time requirement of a single meeting a month, could fairly hold NUGSS accountable, King assured the audience that every OB member would be required to prove their understanding and input in written form, to be submitted each month. Ana Saenz, who was until recently a NUGSS board member, came to the mic and stated that the OB would cause a “weird power dynamic” as a result of 5 inexperienced members scrutinizing the work of NUGSS. It is “hard to quantify” a lot of the work, Saenz claimed, because “this is not like a regular job”. Alex Pinette, also a past NUGSS executive, later defended this statement, telling the room that it would often take him hours simply to answer emails, and sometimes he and other members would put in multiple hours of time with little to show for it in a physical, substantial sense. King assured Pinette that the OB would not be ruthless. Saenz went on to say that she was worried that too much time would be spent scrutinizing and questioning NUGSS members’ hours rather than working on other more important issues.

Erik Searle, joining King at the podium to defend the OB during the question period, replied that, in fact, NUGSS is in a sense hired by the student body and is, therefore, already subject to such an “employeremployee relationship”. He continued that it was healthy for anyone, not just an OB, to question NUGSS actions because those of us being governed–in this case the students of UNBC–should be questioning every single act, not necessarily just because we disagree with a decision but so we remain aware of campus issues. We, the students, are supposed to question things like what NUGSS members are paid, he said. Searle then used an example, referencing recent arguments within the board, wherein a team member was confronted by another about work hours and cuts to their pay, and a fight ensued—an OB would prevent such conflict.

Cunningham clarified that, as a Board member, the pay system is “all or none”, meaning that should a member not make the required hours, they would receive zero pay. As a response an audience member suggested that perhaps this bylaw itself be dropped, in order to create less pressure on NUGSS members to potentially fill their time requirements falsely in desperation.

Speaking again, Saenz referred to a current board member who had been nearly impeached as a result of missing mandatory meetings as a result of working a second job outside of the school. She claimed the attempted impeachment was unfair because this member had outstanding work ethic and had accomplished a great deal during her time with NUGSS. In her opinion, sticking to bylaws could hurt board members.

Seth Jex then took the microphone. He began to speak about nine errors or problems he had found in the proposed bylaw as currently written, referencing the copy handed out at the meeting by OB presenters. Jex stated that there is no contingency plan for if the OB positions are not all filled. A second issue he cited was the impossibility of filling certain bylaws. For instance, missing meetings warranted a 14 day suspension; however, this suspension would result in a member missing more weekly meetings and thus being impeached. Searle freely admitted that this OB idea was new and would have mistakes, therefore he encouraged any input or criticism; the Oversight Board was meant to be a group effort. The OB monthly meetings, Searle went on, would be advertised to everyone at UNBC, and completely open to the student public. He also admitted to the “oversight board’s oversight” that there was, at present, no plan for what happened should the board not have a full five members simply because they had assumed a full membership should the motion for an OB pass.

Jex motioned to table the motion of an Oversight Board to the next Annual General Meeting, which will be held in October 2017. He was defeated—56 people in the room opposed and only 30 voted in favour. Jex then requested that quorum be reconfirmed, because students had been leaving the NUSC space and the seats they had left empty were not being refilled. Malkinson performed a recount and confirmed that quorum still existed. So many people stood up to vote in favour of the Oversight Board that it was deemed easier to count those who opposed. In the end, only 31 students present voted against the motion; this was enough to defeat it, however, because 75% of the room had not voted in favour.

And so, abruptly, the Extraordinary General Meeting ended.