Who’s Fooling Whom?

AUSU council appears to be on a lock-step march to amend Article 10 of its Bylaws. Astonishingly, some councillors?armed with what I can only describe as incomplete information?seem to believe that removing a valuable safeguard from AUSU bylaws is not only a good idea, but necessary.

Article 10 currently prevents any AUSU council from amending the bylaws on their own. That article currently states: “These Bylaws may be amended, in whole or in part, by a special resolution of AUSU as defined in these Bylaws.” A special resolution requires council to take proposed bylaws amendments to the students at an Annual General Meeting (AGM,) or a Special General Meeting (SGM.) At such meetings, all members present, including those on council, may vote on proposed bylaw changes.

Now, AUSU wants to remove the right of members to be included in the vote. In an e-mail sent to members on February 28, 2016, AUSU announced that, to bring AUSU bylaws “into alignment with the Post Secondary Learning Act“, AUSU is proposing that bylaw amendments will be voted on by council only. Under the proposed amendments, members will be permitted to express their opinion at “member consultation opportunities” but council will not be obliged to take members? concerns into account when voting on amendments.

How scary is this? Big-time scary. For starters, if this proposed bylaw amendment had been in place one year ago, you wouldn’t be reading this now. That was when AUSU council proposed an amendment to bylaw Article 7.5, effectively turfing The Voice Magazine. If that bylaw change had not required a membership vote at the AGM, I suspect it would have simply been passed by council no matter what objections students had.

What else could council do without the oversight of the membership? Well, if council can change bylaws without a membership vote, they could, for example:
– raise your membership fees (Article 4.4.2)
– eliminate the right of members to examine AUSU records (Article 7.3)
– change what would become of AUSU’s assets should the union dissolve (Article 11)
– change how long it is before they need to have another election, if ever. (Article 9.1)
Of course, they don’t intend to do any of these things?I hope?but isn’t it scary how easy it would be?

Good governance includes looking at all the potential consequences of a decision?the unintended consequences as well as the intended ones. Good governance also includes gathering and examining all pertinent information required to make the best decision.

Has council done their homework on this? I didn’t get that impression when I attended one of the “member consultation opportunities” last month. Attending that telephone meeting were five AUSU representatives: four councillors?two of whom were executive councillors?and one AUSU staff member. I was the sole non-council member present.

What started to seem like a David and Goliath situation quickly turned into a gong show. Instead of consulting with the sole member (me), several AUSU reps (I won’t identify them in order to preserve their dignity) almost immediately began arguing amongst themselves. It appears that not all AUSU councillors think they have received adequate information on the proposed bylaw change to make a decision.

What information have they received? That’s not clear. What was provided to me, upon my request, was a copy of a legal opinion on Article 10 from AUSU’s lawyer. What wasn’t provide to me, despite my request, was the correspondence from AUSU seeking this opinion. The lawyer’s letter referenced a June 1, 2015 e-mail from AUSU, so it should be easy enough for AUSU to track it down.

What also isn’t clear is why AUSU approached their lawyer about Article 10. One AUSU rep at the consultation session noted the curious timing of the request, coming just days after last year’s AGM. At the AGM, AUSU members attempted to compel AUSU to follow bylaw Article 4.6.1 and expel from membership three councillors who had broken AUSU bylaws. An executive councillor at the consultation session said the AGM had nothing to do with the query to their lawyer. This comment, however, seems somewhat disingenuous considering that AUSU council’s former VPFA has already characterized the thousands of dollars of legal fees in May and June 2015 as resulting from AUSU asking their lawyer for “a full legal opinion on the matters brought forward at the AGM.”

What is clear is that Alberta’s Ministry of Advanced Education has neither suggested nor requested a change to Article 10. Since AUSU believes that the current Article 10 somehow violates Alberta’s Post-Secondary Learning Act, you’d think the first place they’d go looking for answers is the ministry responsible for the legislation.

During the “member consultation opportunity,” once I insisted the AUSU reps stop fighting amongst themselves?as entertaining as that was?and consult with the student, I asked why they didn’t ask the ministry about Article 10. I pointed out that a lawyer’s opinion was just that?an opinion, but only the ministry could give them a ruling on the legislation.

Despite this reasonable question, two of the AUSU reps were vehement about the bylaw change. Article 10 is illegal because our lawyer says It’s illegal and we’re going to change it and we don’t want to bother the ministry about this, is how I interpret their reasoning. Two other AUSU reps expressed doubt about the sole legal opinion they received, with one wondering what expertise the lawyer had in regards to the PSLA, and the other pointing to problem areas within the opinion statement itself.

As the sole non-council member present, I was asked if I would “be satisfied” if AUSU sought a second legal opinion on the matter of Article 10. Why ask me? I don’t know the level of expertise of the first lawyer, and I have no idea which Alberta lawyers would have PSLA-specific expertise. In the end, though, having two lawyers? opinions is still no match for getting a ruling from the Ministry of Advanced Education?something AUSU so far has refused to do.

Why is AUSU reluctant to ask the right questions of the right people? It’s not like they’re strangers to research. In the recently-concluded Forensic Audit Committee report, the research activity described seemed exhaustive. That committee interviewed students who proposed the Forensic Audit at last year’s AGM, consulted auditors, and spent months combing through AUSU meeting minutes, reports, budget documents, and e-mails. Even bylaw amendments have formerly warranted a committee to spend months researching the most minute changes.

But now, when the stakes are high for AUSU’s members, research doesn’t seem to be a priority. No committee has been assembled, no task force assigned to finding out if the bylaw article in question even needs amendment. AUSU did say they looked at what other student associations are doing and concluded that most of them do not include membership in the vote for amendments. I looked at the constitutions and bylaws of the other Alberta student associations myself?they are readily available online?but came to different conclusions as to how amendments are handled.

The proposed bylaw amendment went before council for a first reading on March 10. On April 14, it will go before the outgoing council for a second reading. It’s not clear what happens after that, since current AUSU bylaws state that bylaws can only be amended by a Special Resolution of AUSU. Since the AGM?scheduled for April 7?will already have taken place, presumably the newly-configured council will have to call an SGM to honour bylaw requirements.

Can we have faith in current council to do the right thing on April 14 and torpedo the proposed bylaw amendment? Councillors cannot make an informed decision unless and until they are fully informed. The new AUSU council?with five new faces?will be sworn in only minutes after the matter is on the table for a vote. They may be inheriting an unwelcome legacy which will pit them against the membership at the outset of their term.

I’d like to see AUSU fulfil job number one on their published mission statement: to “keep our members at the forefront of our actions.” The proposed amendment to Article 10 does exactly the opposite.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario. Follow Barbara on twitter @ThereGoesBarb.