Features  The phantom student government

They took student money and didn’t do their job. Now no one can get in touch with them. What happened to the executive board of the Continuing Studies student union?

People talk about last year’s Continuing Studies student government the way people in hillside villages talk about Big Foot. It’s not that anyone’s seen a large, hair-covered biped strolling across their front lawn. But there’s a sense of, well, I’ve got three goats missing and no witnesses: you explain it.

The accusations aren’t just coming from the credulous masses, either. In fact, their succesors – this year’s student governors  – are crying foul the loudest. They think the president exceeded his term limit, but few have actually ever seen or met him. They think some, if not all, of the former executives might no longer be McGill students. But they don’t know for sure: they don’t even know who the executives were.

And it’s not like the accusers are just conspicuously bad at looking. In my three months of reporting, members of the former executive declined my repeated requests for comment. The former McGill Association of Continuing Education Students (MACES) president, Lyes Hamdi, did not reply to any messages sent to either his personal or office email accounts.

Kevin Hardy, the current MACES VP External – and member of the new, non-phantom executive – chose to run for his position out of frustration with the former administration. He said communicating with the former executive was like standing on a cliff and screaming out into thin air.

“There were no comebacks, there were no call-backs, there was no life in the administration. I’ve never actually seen Lyes. I’ve never seen the man,” he said.

Hardy came from work – as an inventory manager at American Apparel – to meet me in the deserted MACES office on Peel early one evening. The course of our interview meandered through recent MACES history, with which Hardy has been familiarizing himself since he took office on February 15. He’s still trying to figure out exactly what happened.

“The situation deteriorated more towards the end of his term, and I don’t exactly understand why,” said Hardy.


Getting MACES-d

MACES occupies a somewhat peripheral space on campus, barely existing even in the minds of Continuing Education students. Students in McGill’s School of Continuing Studies (SCS) range from twenty-somethings looking for further academic qualifications, to people like Hardy, who’s in his fifties with graying hair and a full-time job. Scholastically, an SCS degree falls between a Bachelors and Masters, and takes an average of two years to complete.

With roughly 8,000 members, MACES is about the same size as the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS). But it has two Senate representatives, while PGSS has three, and its Board of Governors representative is a “student observer,” meaning they are not allowed to vote.  And that hardly matters because they haven’t actually elected a Board of Governors representative in at least four years.

SCS students pay a $12.99 per-course fee to MACES.  With each student taking an average of two classes a semester, the Association takes in over $200,000 every semester from student fees. (This is based on my own back of the napkin calculations – no one can find an up-to-date MACES budget. When I asked Hardy about it, he sighed and shrugged.)

The MACES building itself has a hushed, sepulchral feel – less like a church, more like the awkward silence that dominates the first hour of a party. I went one afternoon at the request of my editor to “get the thoughts of regular ContEd students.” There were two students in the four-story building that day. Neither knew anything about the former executive.

“The whole building is empty, and [students] are just paying money for nothing,” said James Kuong, a second year SCS student in the Management program. “Nobody’s here, and that is a sad thing.”

Hardy said MACES is struggling to resolve a “bit of a profile problem.”

“I think it’s a bit of a hangover from the communication issues that were present with the previous administration,” he said.

Every turn through MACES’ narrow, quiet halls leads to a different conflict that has escaped campus attention for years. The MACES cafe used to be in the basement, but was shut down years ago due to a lack of profitability. My journey to check out the wreckage ended in two locked doors and the building’s sprinkler room.

On the second floor, three rows of pristine, one-year-old Macs are at the centre of a much more heated controversy. The former MACES executive bought ten of the computers, which retail at $1199, and dumped them in a computer lab. But hardly anyone ever uses them. One person inside MACES, who asked to remain anonymous, called the computers one of the “major injustices” of the past executive.

“There was such apathy amongst the student body,” they said. “Honestly, I don’t even think they could give less of fuck if I walked out of here with two computers under each arm.”

“It’s just little thing, after little thing, after little thing, and it’s mismanaged money. So it’s just like an example of something that happens at McGill off in a dark corner, and nobody really cares about it. But I think it does matter. Thousands of dollars are just going [to waste],” they continued.


MACES governance

MACES’ oddities continue down to the nuts and bolts of everyday governance. The Association keeps one physical copy of its by-laws in the building. There is no online copy, and the document hasn’t been updated since February 10, 2006. Meetings were recorded on two-track cassette tapes.

The by-laws list seven positions on the Executive Board. Each executive holds the position for a 24-month term. Guesses as to how many of the positions were filled before the most recent election this January range from one – Hamdi – to three.

After a few weeks of digging through old records, Hardy has come to the conclusion that “a lot of the day-to-day activity went through Lyes, and I’m not really sure what the level of participation was of the other Board members.”

Alex Popp, the new VP Internal Affairs, said he has seen Hamdi three times in the two years he’s been in SCS. He says he’s seen another executive twice, though he doesn’t know her name or position. Popp also claimed that the duties of the VP Financial Affairs were being performed by an outside contractor.

Hardy says MACES frequently contracts outside help, particularly for accounting.

“I know that right towards the end of the previous administration there weren’t a whole lot of people hanging around, and stuff does have to get done. Suppliers have to be paid, employees have to be paid, checks have to be signed,” he said.

MACES’s most recent articles of incorporation – filed with the Registre des enterprises du Québec (REQ) on September 26, 2011 – listed Hamdi, along with two others, as members of the executive. In the document, Hamdi was titled “President.” The others – Kathleen Duplessis and Engelbert Gayagoy – did not have titles.

The office of the Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) keeps annual lists of every student society’s executives. Lists from the last two years named Duplessis as VP Internal Affairs, and Gayagoy as VP Academic/Senator.  In 2008-09, the slot for President is left blank along with the asterisk “MACES does not have a full executive – plan on running a by-election in late Sept./ early October.”

Whatever their positions, those three seem to have been running the show since 2009. A quick search of The Daily News section’s inbox (I’m a News editor) produced an email sent to The Daily on September 1, 2009 advertising a MACES Hawaiian luau event. The three executives – Hamdi, Duplessis, and Gayagoy – were copied on the email.


Nice work if you can get it

Gayagoy was the only former executive to respond to my requests for comment. In an email, he explained that he had been admitted to a Master’s program at another university midway through his term.

Gayagoy said that he didn’t understand “why, after our contribution and enthusiastic commitment to MACES, we are being questioned about our integrity.”

“Instead of leaving MACES, I made a commitment to help the student organization fulfill its objectives in providing assistance to Continuing Education students,” he added. “I could have resigned, but I wanted to finish my term. I volunteered my time to MACES while I had pressing academic obligations.”

Five of the MACES executive board positions come with $4,800 annual salaries, paid out in three installments. (The Senate and BoG representatives each earn $3,000 salaries.)

“I can see why they were attached to it when they were, because they don’t have to do a god damn fucking thing. They got paid like $6,000 [sic], which is not a lot of money, but for doing nothing it’s a lot of money,” said the source.

A clause in the MACES by-laws states that executives will only be paid on the condition that they are “achieving three fourth (3/4) of their duties” as executives. For some of them, this includes representing the Association in Senate, BoG, and their various committees.

Joshua Abaki represented SSMU on Senate as last year’s VP University Affairs. In an interview with The Daily he said his dealings with MACES “were really limited.”

“They really never did show up to the meetings, and most of the Senate committees, the slots that they had, they hardly ever showed up. A lot of the things that we did invite them to, they never came,” said Abaki.

“I actually never met with any of them,” he continued. “They’re like a shadow organization that doesn’t exist… They’re supposed to be representing their constituents. They’re not doing their jobs, I don’t think.”

Emily Clare, the current SSMU VP University Affairs, said she has sent MACES several emails, and also visited their office once personally, but didn’t receive a response before January’s elections. She added that she understood “they haven’t had a Senate representative for the last couple of years.”

In an email to me, Secretary-General Stephen Strople wrote that he had been sending MACES emails reminding them of the need to fill the vacant positions. He said their last reminder was sent October 4.

Because MACES is incorporated under Quebec law McGill has to take a hands-off approach so long as MACES is in good standing with the REQ.

“The Secretariat plays no direct role in MACES elections. Our role is limited to reminding MACES of the need to hold an election to fill the Board seat and to select two of its members to fill the Senate seats reserved for MACES reps,” wrote Strople in the email.

Both Popp and the anonymous source inside MACES said they believed the executives had postponed elections in order to receive more paychecks. The executive postponed elections for their replacements three times between when they were supposed to be held – on April 15, 2011 at the latest – and when they finally were held, between January 22 and 28.

Assuming they were elected in 2009, their terms formally ended last April. Three pay installments have passed between their terms ending and the new executive being elected. Hardy said he “couldn’t confirm” if Hamdi or any other executive received paychecks this year. He added that, as an executive, “you’re not getting paid a hell of a lot.”


Business as usual?

According to Hardy, the transition between executives last month was comprised of a late-night, six-hour meeting between Hamdi and Nadia Houri, the new president. He described the process as “a bit of a dog’s breakfast.”

“[Houri] basically had a whole shitload of information dumped on her lap, and in six hours she had no way to make sense of it. And since that time they’ve helped us in one internal process once,” said Hardy.

“That, unfortunately, was the grand total of all the training that was handed off to the new Board, so we were relying very heavily on Nadia to have a good memory.”

At this point in our interview, I had drifted away from the table in the Board room, listening to Hardy describe the shoebox that had essentially filled in for a Chief Returning Officer early in the elections period last semester. The room was as spotless and deserted as Miss Havisham’s estate in Great Expectations. I noticed a partially boarded-up window over Hardy’s shoulder. A squirrel audibly scampered across the roof overhead, and Hardy muttered something about repairs.

The conversation eventually returned to Hardy’s predecessors. “There’s two things I know for sure: Not a lot happened, and that’s not going to happen again,” he said.

Some are not so confident, however. The source, while admitting they were pleased with the “pseudo-revolution” currently underway in MACES, said they wouldn’t be surprised if the issue repeated itself in two years’ time.

“I can pretty much guarantee that someone’s going to want to stay in office, and somebody’s going to want to obscure information,” they said. “That’s just the nature of politics, right?”