Last month, UVic Students’ Society (UVSS) Director-at-Large Gabrielle Sutherland put forth a motion that would have done away with the UVSS board of directors (BoD) executive committee. The executive committee is a closed committee made up of the chairperson and the directors of finance and operations, external relations, events, and student affairs. The motion failed with two in favour and several abstentions, but not before serious discussion and assurance that improvements to the executive committee would be further discussed in another committee — one on policy development that is open to all students.
“My motion came as a response to concerns I heard,” says Sutherland, “from various directors-at-large and advocacy group reps that the executive committee was not meeting their needs.”
Only the five board executives and SUB managers may attend the executive committee’s meetings, in which the executives may approve expenditures of up to $1 500 per motion. In discussion of the motion to abolish the executive committee, board members brought up several points: the committee was supposed to add a layer of accountability but instead adds a layer of bureaucracy; some advocacy reps have felt talked down to by executives; directors put in hours beyond mandate and so should be equals to executives; the UVSS was able to make day-to-day decisions before there was an executive committee by way of the office collective and managers committee, which no longer exists.
Director of Events Lewis Rhodes responded by saying that the policy development committee has been discussing how to improve the executive committee. He also said the executive committee streamlines board functions to avoid six-hour BoD meetings. Chairperson Emily Rogers said the executive committee’s meetings are recorded in minutes, which holds executives accountable. She added that the committee is a valuable check-in that mandates cohesive management.
But Director-at-Large Tribesty Nguyen expressed discontent over a decision to close the SUB at 9 p.m. that was made by last year’s executive committee without consultation. Board members echoed Nguyen’s statement around the table. UVic Pride representative Cal Mitchell said the executive committee’s minutes are vague. Women’s Centre representative Jenn Story was concerned about the onus being placed on advocacy groups to stay on top of executive committee minutes and board activity, which hinders advocacy activity. Some raised the question of whether a hierarchy that privileges an executive committee is healthy. Director of Student Affairs Megan Quigley said the greater climate of mistrust represented by the motion calls back to resentment of actions of the previous executive committee.
Rogers, who did not meet with the Martlet in person, wrote in an email Q&A, “In [policy development committee], we have been brainstorming ways to make the executive committee more transparent. This includes publishing minutes of the meeting within 48 hours, letting advocacy groups know if anything relevant to them has been decided, and including a verbal report from executive committee at board meetings (like we do with all of our other committees). We have also discussed the possibility of executive committee not being able to pass any expenditures.”
However, UVic students are not allowed to know about all of the board’s actions.
Questions about the BoD as a whole have been raised recently, too. Some BoD activity is held in camera. Rogers writes, “In-camera sessions are used at all levels of government. The purpose of going in camera is to protect confidential information regarding legal positions, contracts and personnel.”
Still, some campus groups believe in-camera sessions are being overused by the BoD.
At a Dec. 3 BoD meeting, Justin Levine, a UVic student who is on the board of Access (the association of disabled students no longer recognized by the UVSS), delivered a petition signed by a thousand students and some faculty asking Rogers to open positive, respectful communication with Access. Access says that, before the meeting, Rogers informed Levine that the BoD did not consent to a public presentation of the petition. Levine’s presentation was not included on the meeting’s agenda. The UVSS is currently in legal proceedings with Access, so discussions on the UVSS’s position relating to Access happen in camera.
Levine delivered a written statement to the Martlet that said, “There has been an over-reliance on talking about Access, often in secret, in-camera meetings . . .” rather than with Access.
The UVSS board does not always disclose its reasons for discussing certain matters in camera and may not be forthcoming when asked about them. Minutes for every board meeting since Sept. 10 are not yet posted on the UVSS website, and Rogers did not respond to questions about any recent board activity related to Youth Protecting Youth, a UVic club with which the board has had an uneasy relationship.
At the same Nov. 19 meeting, the Society for Students with a Disability (SSD) put forth an emergency motion to allow the SSD to fund a parking pass for one of its advocates who has a mobility issue and had injured herself on public transit. The SSD said the pass would mitigate the advocate’s disability and allow her to do her job safely and efficiently. Director of Finance and Operations Ariel Tseng was not opposed to granting the parking pass but made a motion to refer the matter to the labour management committee. After debate, the board passed the original motion to allow the parking pass
Sutherland believes the UVSS refers to committees too often.
“There’s this idea on this board,” says Sutherland, “that there’s a proper way of doing things, and that is to refer things to committees. But there’s no mandate; there’s nothing in our constitution, bylaws or policies that says we have to.”
Sutherland has been a member of four boards since September 2009 and says there’s a fear of ruffling feathers on this year’s UVSS BoD. “I don’t understand, if you’re going to be on a political body like that, why you wouldn’t want to speak your mind and state your position,” says Sutherland. “We on the board have the authority to make those decisions.”
Rogers writes, “While the board is the final decision-making body in the UVSS, a committee structure is in place in order to allow decisions to be fully discussed, researched and contemplated.”
Quigley, who is also the chair of several committees including the Clubs Council (which handles the complaints committee), says the board has faith that the committee will follow procedure and policy in its duties. In the case of the complaints committee, the board is not seen as a safe place for sensitive discussions even if there were time to review all submitted material relevant to a complaint and to speak with each person involved. The board generally accepts the recommendations of its committees.
But on other matters, frequent referrals and abstentions may be seen as a symptom of a lack of engagement amongst board members.
“This idea that [the emergency parking pass motion] should be referred [to a committee] was quite offensive to me,” says Sutherland.
Rogers writes, “The UVSS has to approve every expenditure of student fees. Most of the time this process happens seamlessly, but sometimes we don’t understand the nature of expenditure and need to seek clarification from an advocacy group before approving their request.”
Sutherland says board members have a duty to engage and make a decision. “So many board meetings this semester, in the summer too, board members are laughing, giggling and texting and not paying attention to the proceedings, and when we’ve gone to a vote, people have turned around and gone, ‘Huh? What? What are we voting on?’ ”