At AMS Council, executives clash with councillors over limits of their power

A standard AMS Council meeting is fairly boring. It’s largely procedural, with little debate and rarely any contested votes.

But the last year of AMS Council has been marked by public fights, lengthy in-camera sessions and full-on arguments between the executive and councillors.

The reason? A clash between councillors over how much power they should let the executive have.

The debates have divided councillors into three rough groups: those who believe their job is to support the executive (like a corporation), those who want to hold the executive accountable (like a government) and those who are simply apathetic.

“While I do understand it’s nice to have a relationship of trust with people you’re working with, this is a body of oversight,” said Law Councillor Dylan Braam at the November 7 Council meeting. “We should be skeptics.”

Braam and aligned councillors have brought the executive to task a number of times. In June, they pressured the executive to release minutes from the secret meeting where they announced they would try to cut the Sexual Assault Support Centre’s (SASC) support services.

In October, they moved a motion of censure against the executive for failing to advertise the society’s Annual General Meeting.

Most recently, the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) publicly blasted VP Academic and University Affairs Max Holmes for the consultation process he arranged on fall reading break.

The debate has been shielded from the public eye through in-camera meetings, which are closed to members of the public and the media.

Council has gone in camera ten times this year so far, twice as often as the entirety of last year. In camera meetings are often used to discuss legally sensitive topics, like contracts or lay-offs.

But some of the topics of this year’s in-camera meetings have been “the relationship between Council and the AMS Executive,” or “Team-building within the AMS” or “internal teamwork.” Many councillors disagree with using in-camera meetings to have those discussions.

“There are things I want to say that I don’t feel safe saying,” said VP Admin Chris Hakim at the November 7 Council Meeting after a meeting failed to stay in-camera.

The trigger for the heightened tensions, councillors say, was the motion of censure. While a censure is a reprimand with no discernible consequences, four sources with knowledge of the matter said some executives believed it could lead to impeachment. The motion narrowly failed.

“If you view censure as a very low-level reprimand that only affects your pride, it’s appropriate,” said Engineering Undergraduate Society President Kate Burnham. “There are people who interpreted the motion extremely differently.”

Not every councillor thinks the executive is overreacting. Arts Representative Cole Evans is one of several who believe their job is to support the executive, not question it.

“My personal belief is that [our] role is very similar to how a board of directors role would function in the corporate sphere,” said Evans. “The board of directors is there to obviously make sure your executive is performing well … but at the same time, you don’t want to over-exaggerate things that might put the well-being of your company at risk.”

Many other councillors are simply frustrated by all the arguing.

“I have two degrees. I still feel uncomfortable talking in this room,” said graduate studies representative Alexa Tanner on November 7. “I still don’t really know or care what the rules are.”

In a statement to The Ubyssey, AMS President Marium Hamid says the executives recognize the problem and are listening to feedback.

“The Executives welcome the feedback and suggestions from Council on ways they can see both the effectiveness and accountability improving for our structures,” she wrote.

“… We hope that we can continuously work on improving relationships and fostering an environment where everyone feels welcomed.”

Fixing Council

On November 7, AMS Council’s Student Life Committee was tasked with “consider[ing] social events for council bonding.”

It’s an unprecedented motion for AMS Council. Many councillors feel Council spends so much time discussing its own dynamic that it’s not addressing the issues that affect students.

“We’re kinda like dogs chasing their own tails,” complained Science Representative Gurshabad Singhera. “We’re arguing about topics that we all agree what the resolution will be.”

Some meetings this year have lasted as long as six or seven hours. At tense meetings, hours of those meetings are spent in-camera, where AMS Council can’t officially vote on any motion.

But many councillors feel the problems go much deeper than interpersonal relationships.

“There’s a certain level of disenfranchisement,” said Burnham. “There’s always different interpretations as to what the common interest is … or different interpretations of what the AMS really is.”

Caught between those two interpretations are many councillors who complain the long meetings are prohibitive to accomplishing their work.

“The only things that get much debate are usually fairly internal,” said Braam. “The sort of stuff that most people who aren’t on Council wouldn’t particularly care about.”

Not every councillor is as critical of the executive, nor as bothered by the long meetings.

“I could have stayed there till three in the morning, honestly,” said Evans. “I was ready to go to get my motions passed on the agenda. And maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I just love student politics so much.”

Evans, Braam and Science Undergraduate Society Councillor Riley Ty were all quick to point out that most interpersonal relationships in Council were healthy. But with elections just around the corner, councillors acknowledged the long meetings were slowing Council’s progress — ultimately hurting students.

“The productivity right now is so low that it warrants talking about it to create a net positivity in the future,” said Kinesiology Undergraduate Society President Andrew Au. “If we don’t resolve that … we won’t have a better face for the future.”