The Upcoming Referenda: Why you should care about more than just the U-Pass

By now, you’ve probably seen the referendum signs around campus.

You want to keep the U-Pass – of course you do, even if the new iteration will make it more difficult to supplement your tuition by “losing” it.

You want to change the AMS – hell, after this year, who wouldn’t?

One of the referendum questions coming up involves substantive changes to the AMS bylaws, and, as dull a topic as it may sound, I urge you to pay attention to it. It involves some significant changes to the way your student union does its business, and not all of them are good.

Four different referendum questions will be voted on from March 7th to the 11th:

  1. Joining the new, expanded U-Pass program
  2. Student fee increases
  3. Housekeeping changes to AMS bylaws
  4. Substantive changes to AMS bylaws

There’s no question about whether the U-Pass referendum will go through; no matter how annoying the new monthly-pass system will be, students still overwhelmingly appreciate reduced-price transit. The set of bylaw housekeeping changes is nothing surprising: updating language, removing references to non-existent organizations, and clarifying references to other laws (I guess you could vote against it if you’re vehemently opposed to the singular ‘they.’)

The questions proposing the student fee increase and substantive bylaw changes are worth discussing, though.

Note: The fee increase only needs to be approved by a simple majority of the students who vote, but the bylaw changes, as they affect a central governing document, have to be passed by 75% of voting students. Council still hasn’t finished approving the proposed bylaw changes, so it’s still possible for students to attend the meeting this Wednesday (February 23) and have their voices heard before the ballot is finalized.

Fees could go up

Reports earlier this school year talked about a $24 fee increase, but thanks to returning VP Finance Elin “LATFH”** Tayyar, the fees for the AMS extended health plan are also going down to compensate. In total there’s a $14 health plan decrease and a $19 fee increase, which for the 75% of students on the AMS’ health plan translates into a net $5 increase. The increase includes raising general AMS fees, as well as giving additional funding to programs such as childcare bursaries and the AMS’ Lighter Footprint strategy. It will also affect which fees will be pro-rated based on course load, as well as indexing some fees to the Consumer Price Index. [** "Lowered Annual Tariff For Healthcare," natch.]

Raising the core student fees and indexing these fees to CPI are the most important aspects of this referendum question as the AMS faces a worrisome deficit this year. An incremental raise helps alleviate the issue now, and indexing to CPI to account for inflation prevents the society from running into exactly the same problem again years down the road.

Expect a more detailed analysis of where the money will be going to be posted here before it’s time to vote.

Substantive bylaw changes, part 1: Impeachment by Council could be off the table

We all remember Blake Frederick and Tim Chu – the former AMS President and VP External who, without any student consultation whatsoever, commissioned and submitted a $30,000-plus complaint to the United Nations about how tuition fees are too damn high. Many councillors were strongly in favour of impeaching one or both of them, but it turned out that, legally, it couldn’t be done. Basically, the Society Act (which governs the policies and procedures of the AMS) states that someone can’t be kicked off of Council unless it is motioned directly by the members-at-large, which in the AMS’ case generally means a referendum is held in which at least 8% of students must vote and at least 75% of respondents must vote in favour.

It’s also possible for members-at-large to vote for actions such as impeachment at a general meeting (usually happens once a year, but they can be called at any time by Council, which occurred after Blake’s complaint.) The proposed changes bring down the number of students needed to be present to pass actual resolutions at a general meeting down to 500 or 1% of members, (whichever is less) but I will personally buy enough peppermint patties for everyone in the room the next time this happens.

The Council of 2009-2010 still really, really, really, wanted to oust Blake and Tim, and the lawyers who told them that they couldn’t also found a potential loophole that would allow future Councils to impeach their executives without student consultation. The Society Act clearly describes what has to happen for someone to be removed from Council altogether, but leaves open the possibility that an Executive (President or VP) could be removed from their position and reinstated as a regular Councillor. The AMS had a bylaw for removing executives, but not for reinstating them as Councillors, so Blake and Tim had to stay. However, a referendum question asked along with that year’s general elections sought to change the bylaws so that “impeachment” by council was possible by this method. The question failed on two counts: fewer than 8% of students voted, and fewer than 75% of voters approved the changes.

The currently proposed change could be both good and bad: it reinforces the current situation in which students-at-large who elected the executives have the ultimate power to remove them, but continually low levels of student engagement would make an actual impeachment difficult to achieve. It’s worth noting that none of this business would stop Council from being able to remove any and all actual powers held by executives – the very solution used in the case of Blake and Tim.

Substantive bylaw changes, part 2: Records could be sealed, and that isn’t a good thing

The AMS, as a private society, isn’t subject to any sort of freedom-of-information law. The Society Act, which governs its operations, allows for it to create specific bylaws making certain records confidential. The proposed bylaw changes allow for any AMS record to be made private by Council if it can be argued that sealing of the record in question is in the financial interest of the AMS, or some third party. No direct student consultation would be required for this measure, and this is distressing for a number of reasons:

This is unprecedented. No other (public) university student union in BC allows its Council to seal records at the policy level. Of 10 other universities in BC, 7 allow students complete access to all records, and 3 have bylaws specifically stating exactly which records are to be kept confidential. (Examples: private personal information and detailed sales records of society businesses.) If this change goes through as currently drafted, the AMS could become the least open university student society in BC.

This has been rejected before (and for good reason.) Almost-identical changes were proposed in 2001, but the protection of third-party interests was struck down before the changes went to referendum. Councillors so disliked the then-in-effect secret deal with Coca-Cola that changes paving the way for further such deals were rejected immediately. In the words of Rob Nagai, then-Arts councillor, now General Manager of UBC Okanagan’s student union: “It’s about democracy. The bylaws themselves are something meant to protect democracy, and I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. It’s being used to protect third parties, which is not what we’re about. We’re there to protect students.”

This is basically permanent. AMS bylaws, again, can only be changed by a 75%-in-favour vote from students at large: either in a referendum in which at least 8% of students must vote, or at a general meeting (which, if history is any indication would rarely attract enough students to do business, even with the proposed lower attendance requirement.) Getting enough students to vote is a slam-dunk this time because everyone cares about the U-Pass, but such an opportunity comes around infrequently. Plus, as soon as these changes go into effect, the AMS could start signing secret contracts – and then would be breaching a contractual obligation by ever making records open again in future.

Coca-Cola, the AMS, and UBC: A case study

In 1995, UBC as a whole, as well as the AMS, entered into a 10-year joint exclusivity contract with Coca-Cola, the details of which were kept secret from students. This deal was initially criticized by some students who opposed Coca-Cola’s labour practices, but the objections to it weren’t all ideological. Current AMS food and beverage manager Nancy Toogood stated that Coke and UBC had pushed the AMS into a deal that had “a quota [of drinks students had to buy within 10 years] that was completely unreasonable and unattainable.” Later in 1995, then-Ubyssey reporter Stanley Tromp filed a Freedom of Information request for the private details of the Coke deal. The request was initially denied. After a long and costly legal battle, the Ubyssey finally obtained the details of the deal in 2001. It was revealed that Coke planned to pay out $8.5 million to UBC and the AMS over the contract term, and UBC students needed to drink 33.6 million bottles or cans within the 10 years or Coca-Cola would extend exclusivity for 2 years without any additional benefits for us. We didn’t wind up drinking enough Coke, and, sure enough, they remained the exclusive campus soft-drink supplier until 2007.

Despite then-UBC President David Strangway’s insistence that most of the money Coke was paying to the university was going to improve the accessibility of campus for persons with disabilities, only 7.5% of the payout went toward that purpose. In contrast, $2.1 million of the money paid by Coke went to “administrative and start-up costs,” including paying the marketing group who negotiated the deal. The details of the deal were only revealed because UBC, a public institution, had signed it along with the AMS, and UBC is subject to provincial freedom-of-information law. In 2006, just before the deal finally expired, the AMS put forward a motion urging the University not to enter into other corporate exclusivity contracts, citing reasons such as consumer choice and the danger of becoming too reliant on corporate funding.

Basically, the AMS felt pressured into a contract that some felt was a raw deal for them both ideologically and financially. And we wouldn’t even know the half of it without the freedom-of-information laws that apply to contracts signed by the university. The AMS, as a private society, doesn’t fall under these laws itself.

The hazards of closure

With this case already on the books, is there no possibility that the AMS could be pressured into another secret deal by UBC? Not quite. It’s still up in the air whether freedom-of-information law applies to some of UBC’s subordinate branches, including UBC Properties Trust – the group involved in developing and building any new structures on campus. It’s still possible for the courts to rule that, because Properties Trust is a separate corporate entity, no such laws apply to it. If this were the case, then UBC could use this arm to pressure the AMS into any number of unfavorable deals, any of which could easily be hidden from students-at-large.

Simply put, these changes would make it completely possible for the AMS to, in future, be pushed into a deal that’s kept completely secret. It’d have to remain secret as long as confidentiality is important to the business interests of some third party, even if the AMS wouldn’t be harmed by disclosure and students clamored for the information. The value of oversight from a society’s members is far more important than the potential benefits of secret contracts – which include, for example, lower soft drink prices. The AMS collects and spends money from all of UBC’s students, and it shouldn’t be able to hide the details of how this money is spent solely because of somebody else’s financial interest.

Some additional notes:

  • The AMS seems to be good at acting really cagey around information disclosure. Its current confidentiality policy, which is subordinate to (and easier to change than) the bylaws invokes something called a Joint Confidentiality Group, which is a fucking near-Googlewhack. Try it. That’s right, in the interest of restricting information about ongoing negotiations or investigations, the AMS is using a legal structure so arcane that nobody else in the entire world has ever heard of it.
  • There are plenty of other examples where the AMS has refused to release information, despite strong arguments that it would be in students’ interest: They weren’t even willing to reveal how much they paid for musicians Edwin and Chris Sheppard to play at Firstweek in 2000. Though really, any amount of money paid for this guy is too much, no?
  • It turns out that of UBC’s affiliated theological colleges, including Regent and VST, aren’t going to be up for getting voting seats on Council after all. Maybe someone who isn’t a staunch atheist should be writing about this part.
  • A very early draft of the changes proposed getting rid of Student Court entirely, without any explanation at all. I’m not too sure what the committee was thinking with that one.

Fun fact: quorum for an annual general meeting for the University of the Fraser Valley is 3 students. That’s not a typo.


Comments are disallowed for this post.

  1. tl, dr.

    Posted by ~*~Sexy Brunette~*~ | February 21, 2011, 3:04 pm
  2. How will the Upass system change? I haven’t been able to find any information about it on the AMS website and have been relying on AMD Confidential’s information.

    Posted by Eric | February 21, 2011, 3:24 pm
  3. How will the Upass system change? I haven’t been able to find any information about it on the AMS website and have been relying on AMS Confidential’s information.

    Posted by Eric | February 21, 2011, 3:24 pm
  4. Eric –

    The Ubyssey did an article on it today:

    Laura -

    Nice to see another girl in the VFM world, welcome!

    Posted by AMS Confidential | February 21, 2011, 3:29 pm
  5. @Eric the Ubyssey just ran a feature on it, in fact. I chose not to focus on it because almost every aspect has already decided outside of UBC, it’s still a very good deal for students, and I can’t imagine it not going through. (It’s not a question of, “Do you want the U-Pass system to change?” but, “the U-Pass system is changing, do you want the new one, or would you rather pay full price for transit?”)

    Posted by Laura | February 21, 2011, 3:30 pm
  6. Update: The protection of third-party interests was removed from the proposed changes to Bylaw 18, Section 2. I guess people do read this blog after all. New text is as follows:

    “The books and records of the Society may be inspected by the Members of the Society at the General Office on any school day between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. However, Council may establish a policy to keep certain records confidential where disclosure would be harmful to the financial or economic interests of the Society, or the security of the Student Union Building or a computer or communications system, as well as where disclosure would disrupt an ongoing investigation, violate solicitor-client privilege, or reveal in camera discussions.”

    Internal communication claimed that this provision was “added in erroneously.” I’m not sure what to say about that.

    Posted by Laura Rodgers | February 25, 2011, 2:16 pm
  7. Very well written! Thanks for going into detail so well, this very effectively dissects the issues facing students in the referendum next week.

    Posted by Vancouver Window Cleaners | March 4, 2011, 5:54 pm
  8. Well Written.

    Posted by Keenan | March 6, 2011, 8:38 pm
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