After years of concern expressed by Langara College students, the Langara Voice student newspaper, and others, students at Langara College have decided to petition to impeach their student union board of directors. The petition was launched this month after another year of tumultuous conflict that involves students, student association staff, and student money.
A history of internal problems
The Langara Students’ Union (LSU) has a long history of internal struggles and problems that have been covered by the student newspapers, The Langara Voice and the now defunct Langara Gleaner, big media outlets, and blogs. These issues can be broken down into three connected parts of the LSU: elections, financial transparency, and staff management.
On many occasions, there have been accusations of interference and corruption in LSU elections against current directors and staff. Within the last decade alone, students running for the LSU board of directors – including some who won – were disqualified for “irregularities.” On many occasions, the LSU’s media contacts and staff overseeing elections refused to disclose the nature of these irregularities. LSU staff have been accused of working to find ways to disqualify student candidates they disagree with.
Students’ union finances are supposed to be available to students to review, and audited financial statements should be made available at annual general meetings and in the students’ union office. While the LSU may perform some of this basic function, the reality is that the group is highly secretive. LSU board of directors members, as elected students who rarely have experience as a fiduciary, need a lot of ongoing training about their responsibilities for finances – but they never get it. Students’ union members – regular students – are never told that they can access LSU finances and are treated with suspicion if they try to get a copy of these documents.
The reality of the Langara Students’ Union is that both these issues stem in large part to the staff-management relationship. Staff of the LSU are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, have a collective agreement, and negotiate with student representatives using experienced negotiators. The result of this arrangement is a collective agreement that places significant power to disrupt the board of directors in the hands of unionised staff. According to many years of elected students at the LSU, the staff have a stranglehold on decision making and financial spending.
2016 and 2017 issues
As an example of the stranglehold that LSU staff have on the communication and operations of the organisation, the August 26, 2016 LSU Council minutes note a discussion that took place about forming a text message group. The minutes state: “Staff noted that they had become aware that Council members had created numerous Whats App accounts to discuss LSU business that did not include staff. J. Patil (Joyce Patil, LSU staffer) reminded Council that according to the staff union’s contract with the LSU, the Council was to include staff in all business.” LSU staff told elected students it was illegal to use Whats App to discuss union business and asserted that they would start a group text message that included them. They also demanded that the other group messages be deleted. This is only a small example of the lying and manipulation that long time LSU staff use, hiding behind a collective agreement that inexperienced students are hopeless to manage effectively, to protect their meal ticket.
At the June 29 meeting, elected student Harismran Malhi successfully argued against staff that the association should hire a new lawyer and appoint her and another elected student to be liaisons with the company.
On July 11, LSU Council voted to approve the membership fee to join the Alliance of British Columbia Students. Council appointed Malhi to liaise with the group.
Minutes of the July 20, 2016 Council meeting illustrate how separated from reality the staff-management relationship has become at the Langara Students’ Union. The minutes read not as the record of business of a board of directors, but like as a staff person writing about a meeting that they are losing control of (LSU staff keep all minutes, which in itself is not unusual). The minutes an item entitled only “In Camera” with the notation:
Record reflects that the staff and some council members were not included nor invited to the In Camera Meeting held outside the LSU Board room. Staffs also feel that the decision to hire a new legal firm should have been done through the proper channels and the decision should have been inclusive with all staff and council members. Some Council members should not have held a private meeting outside the Board room without informing all members of council and staff on June 29th 2016. There was no respectful communication to staff and some Council Members regarding the hiring of Borins and Co. LSU previous Lawyer had served the organization for over 20 years and has been named the best law firm in metro Vancouver.
It is entirely unacceptable that a democracy that belongs to students is viewed in the way this paragraph describes. The idea that a student association board of directors can’t hire its own legal council without interference from staff is a recipe for staff to have total control. The expectation that elected student board members only meeting – or even discuss – student association business with staff present is Orwellian and dangerous.
In August 2016, the LSU hired Desmond Rodenbour to be its General Manager. Rodenbour has a long history of involvement in student associations, including tumultuous years at the Kwantlen Student Association. LSU Council directed Rodenbour to review the electoral process of the society. The LSU did not conduct interviews and Council minutes don’t show the hiring ever being ratified. For a student organisation, the position was highly paid.
The August 31 Council minutes tell a much different story than those from July 20. Council simply directs Rodenbour to start the process of making many changes, and editorializing in the minutes is cut down.
Staff terminated and directors “resigned”
In the Fall 2016 semester an election was held to fill positions on the board of directors.
In late November, General Manager Desmond Rodenbour was fired. Rodenbour claims that the shift in support for him and the ideas he represented were no longer supported by newly elected students.
Harismran Mahli, a leader in the efforts to change the LSU during the summer of 2016, was “terminated” by the LSU after the Fall 2016 election.
Media Committee response
The Western Student reached out the LSU about accusations against it and received a response from the “LSU Media Committee” that included:
I am not sure of what you have heard from the members of the Voice or any other social media outlets. I do want to assure you that we do respond to the Journalism Departments questions. Yes, we do not give interviews to the Voice and that is due to the fact that numerous time the Voice has published stories that are untrue, biased,contain twisted facts and simply defamatory against the LSU. Every day the LSU aims to do more of the membership. Provide excellent services and spend the students money in a transparent and accountable process. Which is why we respond to the media via email, this ensures that when we review the stories the answers lineup and are not twisted.
When asked what students get for the money they pay to the LSU, the “Media Committee” simply listed a few basic student association services as well as “various events throughout the year” and “various services.”
“The current LSU Bylaws are fair and democratic. The Board is working with the membership currently in creating a new set of bylaws that are in compliance of the BC Societies Act.” said the LSU Media Committee in an email, “In its continuous effort to improve transparency, The LSU Board has held workshops and open committees which invited students to participate in the reformation of the LSU Bylaws. Many students have provided suggestion that the LSU is incorporating into the draft bylaws that will be presented to the membership at the upcoming workshops once completed.”
Petition calls for special general meeting to elect a new board of directors
While it has only happened a few times, students in British Columbia have the power to petition their student association to hold a special general meeting to impeach their board of directors. This has happened at Simon Fraser Univeristy and Kwantlen Polytechnic University, but it is very rare.
Langara College students have launched a petition to impeach the board of directors of the LSU.
The petition statement includes:
This petition is open to all currently registered Langara College students with a valid student ID, and who are members of the Langara Students Union (LSU.) By signing this petition, you will add your voice to the hundreds of students who have called for reform within the LSU over the past decade, with an aim to building a new transparent, accountable and democratic student organization to represent and serve Langara students.
The petition says it aims to do several things:
- Call a Special General Meeting of the LSU membership to pass a number of motions that will remove the current Board (which is violating numerous provincial, federal laws as well as Canada Revenue Agency regulations)
- Trigger new elections to fill the LSU’s Board of Directors, and appoint a caretaker Board in the interim to ensure the LSU continues to provide services to students
- Start a meaningful public process to update the LSU’s governing bylaws to comply with provincial law and ensure accountability
- Start the process of forensically auditing the LSU’s finances to force financial transparency
- To ensure student interests are maintained in the next bargaining process with LSU unionized staff.
“I’ve read the petition and also I believe its a good step,but it requires at least 1000 signatures from students to call a SGM and then those motions could be addressed and also students will have to show up to vote at the SGM as well, at our campus its hard, especially with all the active people on this petition being students themselves, but this definitely needs to happen, and I believe that the group leading the Open LSU Campaign are doing there best,a and thus will be able to make LSU a open, accountable and democratic students working for the students.” Harismran Mahli told The Western Student.
Here is how the LSU Media Committee responded:
The membership has the right to do this. The Board encourage the members to sign this petition if they feel that we are not doing a good job.
Impulse decisions of the previous board has put the LSU under jeopardy. They may say that they were trying to improve transparency and accountability however that is untrue. We felt that these decisions have caused the LSU to cut many services. Having secret meetings does not showcase transparency. Not interviews candidates for an GM position which was very highly paid does not showcase accountability. Getting paid for excessive office hours, missing numerous meetings without notification to council, Paying a legal retainer of thousands when other unions are paying much lower for the same service, Threatening executives to resign if they did not vote in their favor, resigning an executive without notification or a chance to appeal are just some reasons why the current Board has taken measures to “fix” the wrong doings of the last council.
We feel that this is a personal vendetta which will result in a lot of unnecessary stress for the LSU and its membership. We will continue to serve the LSU membership and aim to produce bylaws and policies that are transparent and accountable.
Many layers of failure at the Langara Students’ Union
The LSU is an example of a student association that has layers of failures that will take years for students to fix, even if they start right now.
The biggest failure is that the LSU has almost completely failed to fight for better education for decades. The LSU has no campaign strategy or lobbying goals and does no outreach to educate students about alternatives to increasing tuition rates or student financial aid issues. The LSU never sends delegations or representatives to Langara College Education Council and Board of Governors meetings, meaning programs are adopted and College financial decisions are made and the group that is supposed to advocate for students just sits on its hands.
The LSU also is also deeply integrated with destructive corporate contracts that make it hard to change the society. Langara Students received their LSU health coverage from the Quebec Student Health Alliance (operating as StudentCare), a massive for profit company with a history of influencing student association elections to ensure students that are willing to sign contracts with them win. A lawyer should be at least one small contact that elected students have to provide direction with staff, but the LSU’s legal council during the Harismram/Rodenbour period was former UBC Alma Mater Society director David Borins who has a long history of involvement and bias in student associations. One of Borins’ staff members was also the LSU Council chair, meaning Borins had eyes and ears on the ground whatever is happening.
None of this can change until the destructive and one sided relationship with LSU staff is fixed. Langara College students have no need for people to work for them who are going to try to control their student association and do nothing for them. This is not an issue of unions, but it is made more complicated by the imbalance in experience between LSU representatives and skilled Canadian Union of Public Employees negotiators. If LSU staff don’t resign or face rightful termination, at the very least their work needs to be subjugated to the democratic will of students.
“…the collective agreement of the LSU with its staff has given a lot of power to the staff in terms of how the business will be conducted inside the LSU, and that was one of the main reasons our board, and the student leaders before us might not have been able to fix things, and its due renewal this November, that is why I feel I feel its really important to have people who are aware and who will work in the best interests of Langara Students, to be on the council so that they can negotiate better and in best interests of Langara Students not the staff on collective agreement this year.” said Malhi.