URSU board appoints current president as interim GM

URSU logo in flaming trash can (last time this semester!) URSU logo manipulated by Kate Thiessen

Past execs voice concerns

After a roughly 90-minute in camera session during their Tuesday, March 23 board meeting, the URSU board confirmed that they would go ahead with the firing of General Manager Carl Flis, with outgoing President Gurjinder Singh Lehal stepping in as interim GM. Although the move seems to be a violation of Section V of the URSU constitution, board chair Tim Otitoju, said that the board has consulted with their lawyer, who did not specifically say that appointing the current president to the GM role would be a violation of the section, which states that “no Director may hold more than one office or paid position of the student union at a time.” Otitoju noted that Lehal will not be getting paid for his GM role. “It depends on your interpretation of ‘two roles,’” as to whether the boards’ decision to appoint Lehal is unconstitutional, he added.

The in camera session came after a presentation from three former URSU executives, Victor Oriola, Derek Gagnon, and Nathan Sgrazzutti, where they argued that the decision to fire Flis at this point in the year has a “financial and mental cost,” adding that the loss of Flis at such a crucial time in the semester threatens the services URSU provides and “leaves the university administration unlimited power over students.” They added that their concerns were not about the “merits” of firing Flis, but the timeline.

The three raised concerns about the amount of institutional memory that is being lost, given that at the end of this semester URSU will be down three of the four current executives, an operations manager, and now a general manager. “This is a cost we will continue to incur,” Oriola said. And although Lehal is currently serving in the GM role, the current board has no power to keep him in that role when the board turns over in May.  If URSU has not found a permanent GM by that time, it’s possible that the next board will reject Lehal in the interim role.

In an interview with the Carillon, Sgrazzutti, who was president of URSU from 2012-2014 and who, like Gagnon and Oriola, is a current student at the U of R, said he believes the decision regarding the firing and hiring of the GM should have been left to the incoming board. “They’re the ones who are effectively reaping the benefits or negatives of whatever decision they end up going with.” He said he’s particularly alarmed by the decision to have Lehal step in as interim general manager. “I am genuinely concerned that there is an attempt to extend the tenure of certain individuals on the executive, well past that which they were elected for. And the attempt there is, one, to continue working as the acting general manager and, two, be the ones in control of who the next general manager will be. There’s just way too much of a conflict of interest there.” Although Otitoju said he’s done what he can to build in accountability – something he noted is out of the scope of his role – Lehal is still serving as the hinge between staff and a board who, by all accounts, have a “toxic” relationship.

Lehal told the Carillon that URSU is in a “rebuilding phase” but declined to provide any additional reasoning for Flis’s firing, adding that the board “look[s] forward to working with our members to re-emerge from this transitional phase a stronger, more open and more representative union than we’ve ever been.” Lehal’s comment about increased openness comes at a time when the students’ union has not yet issued a direct statement to the student body informing URSU members of the decision to fire their most senior employee, let alone the reasoning behind it. Nor has the union told students that Lehal will be stepping in as interim GM. The board plans to strike a committee of existing board members, future board members, and no staff to attempt to determine the next GM. Lehal told the Carillon “The search committee will be formed as per the URSU governance. I’m also looking to have output of the next Executives in the search committee as they’ll be the one working with the new General Manager.” For her part, incoming URSU President Hannah Tait said she is “excited to potentially work with Gurjinder on the hiring committee. He has been in consultations and will be deciding specifics of the committee shortly based on policy.” What policy this is remains unclear, and during the meeting last Tuesday, Lehal admitted he would need to obtain legal advice to determine how to move forward. In his remarks to last week’s board meeting, Oriola noted the legal and other costs that will be incurred by University of Regina students as a result of the decision to fire Flis.

Two things have become abundantly clear during the course of the year, and over the past four months in particular. Students as a whole are disengaged from the students’ union. Voter turnout, which typically hovers around 10 per cent, and was 9.6 per cent in the last election, fell to 6.7 per cent this year. CRO Amber Smale warned the board in her report on the 2021 general election that “this is the first major drop” in voter turnout she’s seen. Many students report being unaware that board meetings are open to the public and a surprising number don’t know that students pay money for the services URSU offers. The second is that, with limited exceptions, those who get involved with URSU in any capacity are and remain deeply committed to the union, even after their tenure is up. A major task of the incoming board will have to be bridging that gap between URSU and the students they are supposed to be serving.

With board meetings held virtually, one of the ways the union was previously able to draw students to meetings – free food – is no longer possible. However, the board needs to find a way to increase student attendance at meetings. This is not only an educational opportunity for students to learn about the way their union functions and to foster a sense of inclusion, thereby increasing engagement, but increased scrutiny is healthy for the board, and may help avoid future scandal or constitutional violations. Reducing or eliminating the number of in camera sessions is also a necessary step towards creating a more engaging and transparent union. Taking the firing of Carl Flis as an example, since the discussions about it were held in camera and since the board has declined to release a reason for the termination beyond a “need for change,” outside of rumours and whisper networks, students may never know why the GM was let go.

Speaking personally here and not as a reporter, that’s a problem. While the GM is employed by the board, the board is meant to represent students. When they make huge decisions like this without informing the student body of the reasons behind them (or even informing them that it happened at all), that undermines the sense of solidarity that is supposed to be central to a union. Of course, students feel disengaged from the union – it seems to have very little to do with them and their lives. In her report to the board, Smale told URSU “the Carillon has the most influence over your reputation.” With respect to Smale and her dedicated service to URSU, I have to disagree. URSU is in control of their own reputation. They have the ability to communicate en masse to students, not just about positive things they’re doing, but about their institutional and internal challenges. They can encourage attendance at their meetings, and they can increase transparency. They have a constitution to guide their decision making. Frank and open communication from URSU would be welcome, even if that news isn’t always good news. Part of the reason URSU suffers reputational damage is because they’re often acting like they have something to hide. When every resignation or firing to come out of URSU comes as breaking news in the paper and not as a press release or statement from the union itself, acknowledging trouble and addressing how they plan to respond, of course it seems like the Carillon is in control of URSU’s image. The student body is well aware that URSU is in crisis, it has been since long before the current board. The best way for them to address this is to, well, address it.

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