The past few weeks have been busy at AUSU. Council held a special meeting on January 31, in addition to the regular meeting on February 16, and I attended both to bring you all the details.
The meeting on the final day of January was called to vote on a new location for AUSU’s office in Edmonton, Alberta. AUSU has been leasing an office space in downtown Edmonton at Energy Square for several years and paying a hefty annual price of $54,000. However, this lease expires in April, and AUSU’s executive director has been searching for several months for an adequate, but less expensive option. With the current economic climate in Alberta, council anticipated that they would now be able to obtain a much cheaper lease. AUSU Executive presented three options for council’s consideration:
– A smaller office in the same building for $38,719 per year;
– An office at Nexus Business Park (7 km away) for $34,287 per year; and
– An office in West Edmonton (12 km away) for $18,743 per year.
The meeting was tense. AUSU staff made it clear that they wanted to stay in their current building and went so far as to say that all three in-office staff might leave AUSU if the office was moved to West Edmonton. One staff member insisted that a drive to West Edmonton would add five to ten hours of travel time for her each week. Staff preferred the downtown location because of carpooling arrangements and the perks at Energy Square, such as a bright office space with large windows, heated underground parking, and a 24-hour security guard, which they felt important given the late nights staff often spent at the office for council meetings. They also liked downtown for its close proximity to the post office, AUSU’s lawyer’s office, auditor’s office, and the AU exam center at Peace Hills Trust Tower three blocks away, as well as other amenities such as coffee shops and restaurants.
With AUSU’s strained budget in mind, President Shawna Wasylyshyn and VP External Julian Teterenko were in favour of the cheapest alternative: the location in West Edmonton. At less than half the price of Energy Square, they felt the West Edmonton location seemed adequate for AUSU’s needs, especially considering that the office is rarely visited by students. Shawna stated that although the space may be aesthetically less pleasing than the current building, it was safe, secure, and large enough for staff to be comfortable there. She also emphasized that council has an obligation to manage membership contributions responsibly, and she was uncertain AUSU members would support paying for an office space with features that AU’s own offices do not have, such as free underground parking. She also pointed out that AU had made an offer to host AUSU’s offices for free, which had already been rejected after considering the staff implications, so staff desires were being accommodated. It was noted in response, however, that this free location would have been at AU’s main campus in the town of Athabasca. Other councillors were coy about their preferences and seemed unwilling to voice their opinions in public.
After 45 minutes of debate, council voted to go in camera, and all non-councillors (including staff) left the meeting. An hour and a half later, we re-joined the meeting and learned that council would vote by secret ballot to sign a lease for the West Edmonton office. In a moment of serendipity, Councillor Brandon Simmons, who had been absent for the two hours of deliberations, arrived seconds before council voted, providing the extra vote that enabled a four-four tie. With a tie vote, the motion was defeated. This process was repeated in a vote for the office at Energy Square, with the same result. VP Finance and Administration Kim Newsome argued in favour of the Energy Square lease by noting that losing valuable staff would cripple AUSU’s goals for the year, that the wishes of staff should be given priority, and that it likely meshed better with longer range plans of AUSU if it begins sharing space once again with AU. Councillors Robin Bleich and Brandon Simmons agreed. After several more unsuccessful votes for the various options and with no end in sight, Shawna announced that she would change her vote to approve the lease to stay at Energy Square, as she did not want Executive or staff to spend any more time or energy on the matter. Council then approved this lease with a vote of six to two.
The new lease at Energy Square will be for three years, after which time AUSU will look at sharing a location with AU, whose Edmonton lease will also expire at that time. In the meantime, however, with all alternatives for reducing regular expenses exhausted, AUSU has indicated that they will be looking at the option of increasing student fees sometime in the near future to balance their budget.
The next meeting, AUSU’s regular council meeting, held on February 16th, was a change of pace from the previous meeting. Most of the meeting was occupied by typical (dare I say, yawn-inducing) business, but there were a few interesting moments.
First, AUSU’s new social media strategy was presented, which is an internal operational document that will guide and track progress toward increasing membership engagement and improving communication. The document established guidelines and targets for engaging with members on various platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, AUSU’s mobile app and website, as well as the welcome e-mail that each new member receives. The Joint Council/Voice Action Plan committee’s final report added an action plan to the previous document with four interrelated parts: editorial autonomy and management parameters, content development, marketing, and the Voice’s website. Each of these action plans will require significant work by the Voice’s managing editor, Karl Low, as well as input from a “student focus group.” Without much discussion, council approved both documents. They then passed a motion to thank and dissolve the Joint Council/Voice Action Plan committee.
After an update on council’s progress toward their annual goals, council reviewed its policy revisions for February. Most were minor changes, but there was an interesting debate about if and when councillors should be penalized for failing to respond correctly to e-mail votes. In light of council’s high turnover in recent years, this discussion was both enlightening and disheartening. Councillor Robin Bleich provided the background for the debate; she had mistakenly responded to an e-mail vote by replying to a single councillor instead of the entire group. Considering she is a new councillor, this error is understandable. Or so one would think.
Instead, council penalized her, citing policy 2.16 which states that “failure to participate” in an e-mail vote will result in a one-third absence on the councillor’s record. Two full absences within a 12-month period will trigger a vote of removal from council. Robin could presumably prove her “participation” by showing the date and time of her e-mail, but council gave her no consideration. A lengthy discussion ensued about how many exceptions to this rule should be allowed, under what circumstances, and what specific wording should be used in the policy. AUSU’s longest-serving councillor, Kim Newsome, wanted no exceptions to ensure that all councillors participate in the e-mail votes.
This punitive approach may seem paternalistic. On the other hand, council cannot legislate for every possible event, and arguably, they shouldn’t try to. Policies are simply meant to guide council’s actions and provide direction, but council is responsible to interpret and apply those policies in an appropriate manner. Legislating for every scenario removes the human aspect, and undermines the value of competent leadership. In addition, it could make councillors feel undervalued, while unnecessarily complicating policies with rules for one-off situations. AUSU’s executive director suggested that council pass a motion to recognize the situation and save Robin from being penalized. However, the majority of council decided that the policy should explicitly state what to do in this circumstance, should it happen again. With a vote of five to one, an additional line was added to the policy that allows for a “lifetime maximum” of two exceptions if and only if a councillor fails to reply to the correct group e-mail address.
Lastly, council’s monthly reports provided insight into staff, committee, and AUSU Executive activities for the month. Work on AUSU’s bylaws continues, and a final draft is expected to be presented to council within a month or two. AU is planning to start rolling out student e-mails in April. The Finance Committee wrote off a debt of $375.50 from a former councillor after unsuccessful attempts to collect the money, while AUSU is still trying to contact over 70 students who are owed health plan reimbursements.
The next AUSU Council meeting is scheduled for March 14th at 5:30 pm MST. If you are in the Edmonton area, I encourage you to drop by AUSU’s office at Energy Square on 106 Street NW and meet the wonderful staff there. They are hard at work on your behalf every day, and I’m certain they would love to meet you!