LSU transparency missing the mark

The LSU’s lack of transparency has been called into question again following election questions

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By EMILY BEST

Correction Nov. 29, 2023: A previous version of this story stated that at the start of the fall semester, Langara College’s website listed $487.13 per semester, plus $8.74 added per credit. In fact, this amount was specific to the fall semester.

After multiple email exchanges between the Voice and the Langara Students’ Union, the LSU has refused to further clarify or address students’ complaints about a lack of due process at the recent elections, or the reasons their applications to run for specific roles were ignored.

The Voice has been following student complaints and frustrations surrounding the electoral process since September.

In an Oct. 26 email to the Voice, the LSU shut down any further discussion about the process — raising more questions about its historical lack of transparency.

Langara political science instructor Stewart Prest said students should be able to ask questions and “have them answered with the free press. That’s part of being in a democratic process is being accountable to the media.”

Students have long been concerned about the LSU’s lack of transparency over the years. Students are unable to attend board meetings without jumping through hoops and have long complained about the lack of meeting minutes on the website.

Minutes running late

In November 2018, the LSU assured the Voice that its meeting minutes and financial records would be posted online when its new $15,000 website was launched.

Yet, as of the publication date of this article, no minutes have been posted. A search of “minutes” on the LSU website yields “coming soon” messages for executive and council meeting minutes. There are no pages available for meeting agendas or financial records. The Voice asked the LSU why its website was not updated with meeting minutes. Initially the question went ignored, but after being asked a second time the LSU answered, “We will take a look at the website and see what needs to be updated.”

A number of other students’ unions, including the ones from UBC, BCIT, University of Victoria, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Douglas College and Capilano University, have past and present meeting minutes and agendas publicly available on their websites.

Esmé Decker, president of UBC’s Alma Mater Society (AMS), said its union’s bylaws require the meeting agendas and minutes be posted online within a couple days of all meetings, and there is an extensive archive that all students can access.

“It’s very valuable to be able to ask about what student executives have tried, what issues have been come across, what solutions have been tried,” she said.

Karandeep Sanghera, president of Capilano Students’ Union (CSU), said all of the CSU’s agendas and meeting minutes are available to the public on its website.

“It contains every information like from small to big like what is discussed, if any motion has failed, why, what is the response, everything,” Sanghera said. “The person we are working [for] should know what we are working on.”

All student unions fall under the B.C. Societies Act, a provincial legislation that covers all provincial societies. Societies’ bylaws must comply with the Societies Act.

In 2016, the Societies Act was amended to allow members to request to see records previously inaccessible.

Following this, the LSU changed its bylaws to adhere to the Act but exploited a loophole, continuing to limit access as much as permitted.

Section 24(2)(b) of the Societies Act states that members may view detailed financial records with receipts, meeting minutes and the names of directors present at meetings “unless the bylaws provide otherwise.”

In response, the LSU created bylaw 13.2.1, which states that members cannot inspect or obtain LSU records listed in Section 20(2) of the Societies Act “unless Council determines otherwise.”

In addition, the LSU created another bylaw, 13.2.2, stating that members wishing to inspect LSU records permitted under the Societies Act, “shall provide a written request in person at the offices of LSU and schedule an appointment.”

When the Voice initially went to LSU offices to request meeting minute records, the reporter was told she needed to submit an email request, which did not match the above LSU bylaw requirements.

Reporters returned a few days later, to request LSU policies and the most recent AGM minutes, which are not available online. Again, they were told they needed to submit an online request. However, after reporters pointed LSU resource coordinator Winnie Kuitenbrouwer to the LSU’s actual bylaws, their written request was accepted.

The Voice received a notice Monday from the LSU that the requested documents were ready for review. It is unclear whether the Voice will receive copies or may only look at them, as well as whether all the requested documents would be made available. As per LSU bylaws, only the president or VP financial and administration can provide permission for any copies of documents to be made for members.

In-camera meetings

Another area lacking transparency is the LSU’s justification for council taking meetings “in-camera” or privately, with no meeting minutes or agendas made public. The LSU does not state anywhere in its bylaws why it may move a meeting in-camera, in contrast with the bylaws of UBC AMS, Douglas Students’ Union (DSU) and Kwantlen Student Association (KSA), which all list specific reasons a meeting may be moved.

The Voice asked the LSU under what circumstances it may take a meeting in-camera and the LSU said the decision to move a meeting to in-camera was made “at the discretion of the board,” adding that any decision made while in-camera would be recorded in the minutes of that meeting. When asked to specify exactly what kinds of scenarios warrant a meeting moving in-camera, and what kinds of decisions may be made while in-camera, the LSU would not answer, repeating that meetings are moved in-camera “at the discretion of the board,” and said that “decisions are made out of the camera.”

Meetings open/closed to LSU members

LSU members are barred from sitting in on council meetings without any pre-arrangements. In order to attend meetings, members must submit an online application, which then must be approved by the council. The LSU said this change was put into place about 10 years ago, but when asked, they did not specify why.

Members do not need approval to attend Annual General Meetings (AGM), held once per calendar year. These meetings used to be held in September, but as of 2013 have been routinely held in June or July, when fewer students are on campus. For two years following COVID, they were held in September again, only to move back to the summer this past year.

Decker said all AMS meetings are public, and students can participate.

“We have typically three spots for student-at-large statements at the beginning of the meetings, each meeting,” Decker said. “So that’s where students have a chance to give a statement and the counselors have a chance to respond.”

Sanghera said that students are also allowed in CSU council meetings and have “speaking rights.”

“They can speak on any motion going on, anything during the meeting,” Sanghera said. “They can bring up any discussion during the question period…like they want to bring something to board. It’s totally open.”

Wasiimah Joomun, executive director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, said transparency strengthens accountability in her organization which supports students across the country.

“Students are paying you and trusting you to go and do the job so that they don’t have to really worry about advocacy, and they can focus on their studies,” said Joomun.

“It is a very important piece and I think it really fosters a lot of the work.”

Shutting down queries

In its Oct. 26 email to the Voice, responding to questions about the number of students who attempted to run for VP internal, the LSU responded that “providing a numerical value to measure the accuracy of applicants’ tailored resumes may not be the most effective way to evaluate their success in the position they sought during the LSU Electoral process.” The LSU said it was essential “to consider other factors that contribute to the overall outcome.”

Other student unions usually require only that candidates be in good standing with the college, while the LSU also requires two work references, one academic reference and a curriculum vitae with the related expertise.

But the explanation stopped there. The LSU insisted the election was fair and impartial “based on decisions made by neutral third parties involved in this election,” referring to chief returning officer Jeannie Bates, whose LinkedIn profile said she also works at Elections Canada before it was recently taken down.

“The Elections Committee and CRO will consider your implied concerns while fulfilling their roles and responsibilities,” the LSU wrote. “This is LSU’s last response to the Voice about the eligibility phase in the election.”

The LSU also said it could not reveal the names of the seven students on the elections committee because they had not consented to having their names given to the Voice. However, it did give the names of the two staff members on the committee: Gunkirat Khosa and Donna Rainford-Cayenne, a long-time staff member who has been with the LSU since at least 2012.

“If we have questions about the integrity of the election, it becomes a further cause for additional scrutiny,” stated Langara political science instructor Stewart Prest, adding he believes students should “question the lack of transparency and to continue to push for an accountability of student government to the student body.”

The Voice is aware of at least three students who said their applications to run for VP finance and administration were ignored. They said they were only told they were eligible to run for a different role — and were not given any reason when they asked about VP finance. In addition, because they were not directly told they were ineligible for the role, they were unable to appeal.

Outdated information

The LSU website has a page that contains a breakdown of all LSU fees added to students’ tuition costs each year. Though its fees usually change annually, this page remained unchanged between Feb. 26, 2021 and Nov. 2, 2023.

At the start of the fall semester, the LSU website listed $424.73 as base fees with an additional $8.24 per credit being taken. The website should have read $487.13, plus $8.74 added per credit. Since a Voice inquiry, the LSU has updated its listed fees on the website.

— with files from Erin Conners, Emma Shular and Thea Catipon

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