Conflict in Kelowna: UBCSUO fires general manager, begins external review

After two years of steep deficit spending and an investigation by The Ubyssey that exposed evidence of mismanaged student funds, the UBC Students’ Union Okanagan (UBCSUO) has fired its general manager and hired an accounting firm to conduct an external review.

The UBCSUO’s board of directors voted to fire General Manager Bob Drunkemolle — who had been with the union since 2013 during an in-camera meeting on September 28. At the same meeting, the board voted to hire accounting firm Meyers Norris Penny (MNP) to conduct the external review.

“The decisions we made at that meeting are to improve our student’s union, and our focus is on moving ahead,” said UBCSUO President Trophy Ewila. “We’re now working to ensure a smooth transition and proper hiring procedure.”

These two decisions represent a major disruption for the UBCSUO.

The general manager is a student union’s most senior employee, responsible for day-to-day operations and long-term strategy. The external review is a multi-month process, the first of its kind in UBCSUO’s history.

A questionable financial history

The UBCSUO — with an annual budget of approximately $1.4 million — ran two consecutive deficits in 2015 and 2016, each more than $300,000. This put the non-profit society in violation of its own bylaws, which prohibit operating at a deficit. Prior to this, the union ran surpluses of $452,283 in 2013 and of $137,222 in 2014.

In March 2017, The Ubyssey revealed evidence of the mismanagement of this money as well as of conflicts of interest among the UBCSUO’s past student leaders at the time of deficit spending. Questions were raised about whether student money had been paid out to a past executive’s private business.

Drunkemolle, who had previously claimed that all UBCSUO’s cheques went across his desk, refused to confirm or deny whether any money was paid to that past executive’s business, at one point cutting off all contact with The Ubyssey.

Ewila will not yet confirm details either.

“At this point I can’t say anything about that, we’re still working on the exact details we’re going to release,” said Ewila. “But that’s something we can have a later discussion about.”

Questions about Drunkemolle’s salary had also been a focus of The Ubyssey’s investigation.

The union’s largest annual expense was the line item “wages and employee benefits,” and this line item had more than doubled between 2013 and 2016 — going from $190,000 to $422,370. Drunkemolle said the increases resulted from two new employees and two pay increases for the unionized employees’ collective bargaining agreements.

The Ubyssey fact-checked those assertions using the union’s public records, and found that the wage increases were still unaccounted for. The only employee contract not publicly available was Drunkemolle’s. Past executives confirmed that Drunkemolle’s contract had been re-negotiated since he had begun at about $75,000 a year in 2013, but none would share specifics, citing confidentiality.

When confronted about this, Drunkemolle told The Ubyssey he hadn’t said anything about his contract because he had a right to privacy.

“It’s none of your business,” said Drunkemolle. “If I do release that [salary information], it will be with the board’s confirmation first, of course.”

Drunkemolle’s right to privacy, however, had already been removed by the BC government.

Student unions in BC are governed by the BC Societies Act, and this act was updated in 2016 and now requires disclosure of any employee salaries that are $75,000 or more in the annual audit. Drunkemolle’s salary would have been disclosed in the UBCSUO’s upcoming audit.

Ewila would not discuss the details of Drunkemolle’s contract either, though he again said that more information would be made available in the future.

Drunkemolle also declined The Ubyssey and students’ requests to access accounting documents that would help explain what caused the UBCSUO’s deficits. According to the BC Societies Act, students are entitled to review their unions accounting records. Drunkemolle claimed that the UBCSUO’s bylaws did not allow for such access.

The Ubyssey asked a lawyer for his opinion on this issue.

Luke Johnson of De Jager Volkenant and Company Barristers and Solicitors – who specializes in non-profit and charity governance and has extensive experience with the Societies Act — stated that the BC Societies Act supersedes the bylaws, unless the bylaws have specifically provided an alternate way for students to access accounting records of their union.

The UBCSUO has no such provision, therefore students are entitled to review the union’s accounting records.

Quick turnover: four general managers terminated since 2011

The UBCSUO has had a difficult history with general managers, with Drunkemolle being the fourth to be fired in only six years. His contract was terminated without cause, which typically includes a severance package, but Ewila would not discuss those details, citing confidentiality.

The Phoenix News, UBC Okanagan’s student newspaper, reported that Drunkemolle had not been aware his termination was being discussed. Drunkemolle could not be reached for comment.

Drunkemolle’s predecessor, Claude Guerette, lasted less than a year and was fired with cause. He sued the union for wrongful dismissal, but dropped the suit after the UBCSUO submitted student testimony to the court that included allegations of derogatory and racist slurs.

The UBCSUO has started a hiring committee to search for a new general manager, and Ewila hopes to find a strong candidate within seven weeks.

In the meantime, the UBCSUO is looking for an interim manager. Their top candidate at the moment is Mike Ouellette — the campus pub manager — who has been with the UBCSUO for 14 years. Ouellette could not comment, citing his union contract’s restrictions.

Ewila emphasized that the UBCSUO had learned from its previous hiring mistakes.

“One of the major things we found was that the UBCSUO never really carried out a proper hiring process, they often ended up taking on interims,” said Ewila. “This time we want a hiring process that works with the visions and the goals of the student union.”

Nick Dodds, who was a student executive during the last general manager turnover, confirmed that he had been consulted. He said it sounded to him that the new UBCSUO board has the right priorities, moving forward.

The external review

Ewila estimates MNP will take up to six months to complete its review of UBCSUO’s operations, costing up to $40,000.

The Ubyssey reported in May that Ewila was in conversations with MNP to conduct an external review, and that a vote was expected in June. But that vote did not happen until September 28. An MNP representative has met with Ewila to initiate the review.

MNP was attractive to Ewila and his executive because of the firm’s experience with UBC Vancouver’s AMS. The AMS hired MNP to conduct an external review in 2016, which cost $46,000 and produced recommendations that were all accepted by the society.

“The major focus will be on finances and governance,” said Ewila. “What are some of the reasons that could have led to the UBCSUO’s financial mismanagement and how could that be tightened? We basically want to improve all services of the student union.”

This article has been updated to clarify Drunkemolle’s refusal to confirm or deny the allegation of student money being paid out to a past president’s business, and the lawyer’s opinion regarding the BC Societies Act.