Saturday, December 10, 2016
Last updated: 1 year ago

A student union in crisis: How did the Kwantlen Student Association become such a mess?

Courtesy of The Runner

All student unions have scandals. It’s what happens when politically inexperienced young people gain power over millions of dollars. Few elections occur without squabbles, and personal attacks are common at student council meetings.

But when it comes to scandals, no student union in the country holds a candle to the Kwantlen Student Association.

The KSA has seen a gauntlet of court cases, boycotts, firings and security incidents in the past decade, but 2011 brought an almost unfathomable level of dysfunction and deceit.

Imagine a student union that was suing five of its former directors and staff for alleged mismanagement of $2 million in student fees.

Then imagine the sister and cousin of one of the accused were elected as directors to that student union’s executive without revealing to voters that they were relatives.

Next, imagine that the new directors removed the lawyers in charge of the case, were exposed by the campus newspaper for their family connections—causing one of them to resign—and then still terminated the lawsuit before it reached a conclusion.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

On November 30, Kwantlen students held a Special General Meeting (SGM) at which the entire executive board and 13 councillors in total were unanimously impeached. The meeting was interrupted by a pulled fire alarm and was monitored by RCMP and campus security.

Now, as the interim executive starts its term, one of the ousted directors has filed a petition to the BC Supreme Court, alleging that the SGM was illegitimately convened.

Lawsuits are nothing new to this student union. In the past year, the KSA has been involved in at least five separate BC Supreme Court cases and racked up well over $250,000 in legal fees (the AMS, with a budget five times the KSA’s size, has spent just over $20,000 in the same period). It has fired its general manager, banned councillors from its offices and been in multiple disputes with the university administration and the campus newspaper.

But to really get a sense of how this student union ended up this way, and to understand the reasons why, one needs to start at the beginning.

You might want to make sure you’re sitting down before reading on.

The trouble begins

Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) is a decentralized school, spread over four urban campuses in Surrey, Richmond, Cloverdale and Langley. It has a student population of roughly 18,000, and the KSA takes in more than $3 million per year in student fees.

The KSA Council has 19 voting positions, including an Executive Board made up of five elected directors. The KSA president, however, is not elected by students. Council appoints one of its own members to this position, which primarily consists of being the public spokesperson of the society.

The Kwantlen campus newspaper is called The Runner. As with many universities, but especially with smaller ones, the circles of student politics and student journalism overlap at KPU. This year, The Runner’s news editor is Matt DiMera, who was an unsuccessful candidate in the February 2011 KSA election. Although his recent political candidacy raised some controversy, DiMera went on to win two national student journalism awards for his coverage of the KSA.

Many of the details below come from stories from The Runner, though the student union’s tribulations have been covered in many major media outlets.

The bulk of the KSA’s troubles began in May 2005, when Aaron Takhar became the KSA’s director of finance as part of the “Reduce All Fees” (RAF) slate. Takhar was then appointed as chairperson of the board (the chairperson runs KSA Council meetings unless a speaker is appointed, which is not usually the case).

That September, the KSA held an SGM that featured $13,000 in prizes, including an $8000 tropical vacation. A 200-page document containing sweeping bylaw changes was voted in. The number of elected student representatives was halved and the remaining ones had their terms doubled to two years. Four elected students were expelled from Council. By January 2006, the Executive Board’s pay had been increased by 130 per cent.

Takhar did not run for re-election in 2006. He was instead hired as an “executive advisor.”

In August 2006, documents were filed in the BC Supreme Court that sought to overturn the results of the September 2005 special meeting, reinstate the expelled students and declare the most recent election null and void. The documents were filed by the four students who had been expelled from Council.

Instead of fighting in court, Takhar and the rest of the RAF agreed to a new election.

Forensic analysis

The October 2006 election saw the expelled students take power, and they immediately went to work.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, an accounting firm, was commissioned to do a forensic audit on Takhar’s reign. The auditors recovered thousands of deleted emails and pored over financial documents. The results were explosive.

The audit reported that nearly $150,000 of student funds had been paid out without supporting documents. This included $67,000 paid to a consulting firm called AST Ventures, which Aaron Takhar later confirmed to Maclean’s that he was the sole director of upon incorporation. (AST are also Aaron Takhar’s initials).

Furthermore, the audit showed that during that time, the society gave out $620,000 in loans that “appear high-risk,” many of which were unsecured. Another $200,000 loan was given from a fund that was supposed to be used only for KSA health and dental expenses.

The report goes on to include many details about election manipulation and missing financial documents. The audit’s allegations have not been proven in court.

In August 2008, the KSA sued Takhar and four other members of the RAF party. The press release accused the five members of “fraud, embezzlement and mismanagement,” though the actual BC Supreme Court case would only address “wrongful transactions” and “breach of fiduciary duty.”

Calm before the storm

The KSA then stayed relatively quiet until spring 2011—though it should be clarified what “relatively quiet” means for the KSA.

In March 2008, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) sued the KSA over procedures for a proposed referendum, and won. Next year, the KSA sued the provincial wing of the CFS over representation on CFS-BC’s board, and won.

A boycott of KSA Council began on September 30, 2010, by Council members who supported recently ousted chairperson Reena Bali. Council was unable to meet quorum for almost four months, which delayed important decisions on the U-Pass and a new student union building.

In February 2011, just before the results were announced for the February 2011 election, the KSA’s general manager, Desmond Rodenbour, was fired “with cause.” The decision to fire Rodenbour was debated publicly at an open Council meeting, and then voted on. It was based primarily on a management audit commissioned in January.

Six months later, Rodenbour sued the KSA for wrongful dismissal. But by that point, the society had much bigger problems to deal with.

Chaos reigns

On February 14, 2011, the results of the KSA election were announced. Among the winners were Justine Franson, the new director of operations, and Nina Sandhu, the new director of finance.

It would eventually be revealed by The Runner that Franson was Aaron Takhar’s sister and Sandhu was Takhar’s cousin (Sandhu also uses the last name Kaur). This had not been disclosed to voters.

Months later, a KSA lawyer stated that Franson and Sandhu informed Council of their conflict at the first Council meeting, but there are no minutes publicly available that show this happened.

The new councillors took office on April 1, 2011. On that day, the Executive Board told the KSA’s lawyers to “cease all activity pertaining to the RAF case until further notice.” Franson was made “the sole liaison with KSA legal counsel.” The minutes showed that the motion had been moved by Sandhu.

Within the first month and a half, the KSA Council banned one of its councillors from being in the KSA offices, raised executive work hours by ten per week, gave executives a 40 per cent pay increase and banned all recording devices from Council meetings.

On July 29, The Runner dropped the bombshell that both Franson and Sandhu were related to Takhar. The Surrey Leader later confirmed their report.

The Runner was unable to get any of the Executive Board to comment on the revelations, and at one point RCMP officers were called to force Runner reporters to leave the KSA office area.

Shortly after, Runner reporters began visiting houses, using the addresses submitted by KSA executives to the BC Corporate Registry. At the address given for Justine Franson, its habitants knew Franson but said she had never lived there. When they visited Aaron Takhar’s house, Runner reporters said that Sandhu answered the door and then shut it immediately. Sandhu told The Ubyssey that this never happened.

As outrage grew and major media outlets picked up the story, KSA President Sean Bassi released a statement on the KSA’s website. It said that Franson and Sandhu “understand the appearance of a possible conflict.” The statement went on to say that, “both have, and continue to abstain from any decisions pertaining to the civil actions against former directors.”

However, the minutes from the April 1 Executive Board meeting clearly show that Sandhu moved the motion to cease legal activity and that Franson was made the sole legal liaison.

Franson resigned on August 13 and refused to speak with the media.

The final step

August ended with the news that Rodenbour was suing for wrongful dismissal. On September 1, the KSA sued a website called “KSA Truth,” which was printing rumours and allegations about the KSA.

On September 16, university administrators put a halt to the KSA’s planned by-elections, citing clear interference in the chief returning officer’s duties by elected KSA officials. The by-elections had included a referendum question which would combine many of the special student fees into one general fee, giving the KSA significantly more freedom with its funding.

Five days later, KPU’s Board of Governors officially halted progress on a new student union building because of the “disputes” within the KSA.

A month later, KSA Council held a closed-door meeting at which they officially terminated the lawsuit against Aaron Takhar and the other RAF members. It was justified as a cost-saving measure. “We’ve heard [the students’] concerns,” said Bassi in a statement, “and we’ve listened.”

The Runner ran an editorial with the all-caps title, “OUTRAGE.”

The students fight back

On October 21, the KSA sued the student newspaper at Simon Fraser University over an article published about the turmoil. In the meantime, Kwantlen students began collecting names on a petition in attempt to force the KSA executives out of office.

Christopher Girodat, a student senator who was the Executive Board’s most persistent opponent on Council, presented a 277-signature petition to Council that, according to the KSA’s bylaws, mandated an SGM. The meeting was intended to impeach 13 councillors and prevent them from running in future elections.

In his report to Council on November 18, Bassi addressed the petition. “The majority of students do not think an SGM at this time is beneficial, meaningful, or necessary. In fact, my discussions with some students who were misled into signing the petition has led me to believe that there were sleazy tactics used to obtain signatures.”

An SGM was conducted at the Surrey campus at 2pm on November 30. Sandhu alleges that this meeting was not properly convened, but the BC Supreme Court has yet to rule on this.
KSA bylaws stipulate that an SGM needs 250 people in attendance, and votes need 75 per cent in favour to pass.

After a few interruptions, including a pulled fire alarm and a “noxious substance” released in a hallway, the impeachment question was passed with 352 students in favour and zero against. Bylaw changes were also passed.

Five transitional Executive Board members were appointed without pay and instructed to hire a general manager and hold an election as soon as possible. However, the court has barred the Executive Board from doing this until it settles the question of whether the SGM was legitimate.

The day after the SGM, the impeached Executive Board members were given letters by campus security on university letterhead and instructed to leave the campus, according to The Runner.

On December 5, a protest was held against the new executives and the university administration. The protest was led by Aaron Takhar himself.

What went wrong?

It will still be weeks, possibly months, until the KSA’s affairs reach any kind of normalcy.

Jonathan Tweedale, the lawyer representing Nina Sandhu, has argued in court that under the KSA’s bylaws and the Society Act, Christopher Girodat and the rest of the petition leaders did not have the authority to convene the SGM on their own.

Sandhu referred most questions about her time as director of finance to Tweedale, but Tweedale is focused on the case at hand. “The press has focused on the substantive dispute between the incumbent director group and the critics of the incumbent director group,” said Tweedale, “but that very interesting dispute is not an issue that is going to be resolved in the court [with the current case], that’s an issue for the society’s members to determine.”

While the question of the SGM’s legitimacy is being settled, there is another one worth asking: how did this student union become such a mess? And could something like this happen to any university?

Girodat, the senator who helped organize the petition to hold the AGM, was interviewed by The Ubyssey before the SGM impeached the 13 councillors. “The friendship issue is probably at the height of the problem. Two thirds of Council are very good friends with each other. At Council meetings we have all of these directors having pre-meetings in the executive office, so they know exactly what’s going to happen and how they’re going to vote and everything.”

“If you look back at past minutes,” said Jennifer Campbell, who is serving with Girodat on the interim Executive Board, “there’s pretty much four of us who would oppose, and everyone else was always in favour.” But Campbell also pointed out that slates are banned in the KSA, and there’s no proof that the like-minded councillors had coordinated ahead of the election.

Girodat argued that the KSA Council structure makes it easy for majorities to push an agenda through. The Council is made up of representatives from the four campuses, not from different faculties.

“I think in terms of making it so you have more diversity of opinion on Council, and a broader range of student voices, faculty representation could be one way to do that,” said Girodat.

The society is also particularly ripe for being targeted by political blocs.

“The KSA is sort of an anomaly,” said Matt DiMera, The Runner’s news editor. “There’s lots of schools where it would be really easy to take over your student union, but they don’t have any money. But the KSA actually has a decent-sized budget for being a small student union.”

What compounds this problem is the difficulty of enforcing the Society Act when rules are broken.

Matt Todd, the 2010 director of external affairs, pointed out that any violation of the Society Act requires going through civil court to address. But launching a civil lawsuit is often prohibitively expensive if you’re not able to access the student union’s legal funds.

Jeff Groat, the coordinating editor of The Runner, said that councillors are also often unable to express real dissent on Council. When a speaker is appointed, meetings are run according to a neutral set of rules. But over the past year, and in many other years, the meetings have been chaired by a member of the Executive Board—in this case, it was Sandhu.

In the end, the SGM was the only real option for students who were furious at what they saw happening. Yet it’s still unresolved whether they managed to do this in a legal way.

Campbell has hopes that the KSA will rebound eventually. “I think we’re very unique in that we have four different campuses, and four different populations where views can come together and see what works best for the whole of the student population.

“If the right people are in power, they can work together and make it thrive.”