Students are now in the homestretch of the Winter semester, but there is one obstacle: Election season. Over the next two weeks, McGill will be treated to another round of prospective Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) executives for the 2018-2019 school year. Student politicians have often tried to earn cheap political points by making the largely nebulous promise of increasing trust and transparency. Indeed, current president Muna Tojiboeva was elected in Winter 2017 after making exactly those promises.
Yet, there have not been any significant improvements on either of those fronts, as evidenced by a motion of non-confidence against Tojiboeva at the Fall General Assembly in October 2017. If anything, SSMU seems just as dysfunctional as last year––the early resignation of Vice-President (VP) Operations Anuradha Mallik and the murky suspension of VP Finance Arisha Khan from the Board of Directors are only highlights. However, the most appalling SSMU scandal this semester was the controversial $4,000 loan to AVEQ, because it revealed the serious gaps in SSMU’s financial administration. Rather than making more vague promises about communication and student trust, the future VP Finance should propose clear, actionable steps to improve SSMU’s financial transparency and reporting of expenses.
After using a SSMU credit card to fund and host an AVEQ conference, SSMU executives Connor Spencer and Isabelle Oke defended their actions by claiming they were standard practice. The incident revealed how unclear the rules on discretionary spending are—even VP Finance Esteban Herpin seemed unclear on the rules. The fact that AVEQ will pay SSMU back doesn’t change the troubling lack of clarity on executives’ access to company credit cards.
Certainly, there should be rules governing when executives are allowed to rack up thousands in credit card charges. However, since these rules are not public, students have to assume that either they don’t exist, or take Spencer and Oke’s word that they followed them. If SSMU is serious about promoting transparency, it needs to release all internal regulations on discretionary spending so that the electorate can assess whether they are stringent enough, and hold executives accountable to them in the future. The confusion as to whether Spencer and Oke committed any wrongdoing is unacceptable, and could have been avoided with clear standards outlining how the SSMU executive handles discretionary spending.
SSMU does not report the executive’s departmental budgets, or indeed the budget itself, in sufficient detail. The 2018 budget is a spreadsheet with no explanation for any of the values—it only shows net movements in cash, after the money is spent, instead of budgeted gross values. To top it off, there is no reporting as to how each department spends its allocated funds. For example, the 2018 budget projects the VP External department to be over $40,000 in deficit. The specific benefits that students receive for that money is unknown, since the budget does not elaborate on individual departmental budgets. Students should demand that the incoming executive team publish more detailed budgets and expenditure reports that account for every dime earned and spent by each SSMU portfolio. Specifically, departmental budgets should be public and expenditures should be in gross rather than net values. While audited financial reports require this type of accounting, the budget doesn’t need to be in net values, nor should it be. After all, the AVEQ conference debacle could be only one of various ambiguous discretionary expenses.
Ultimately, in order to hold representatives accountable, students need to know how SSMU is spending their money. Right now, there is no clarity on how executives budget their money, and how much various portfolios spend on what. When the incoming VP Finance promises to prioritize transparency, students should demand real measurable objectives. If Jun Wang—the only remaining candidate for VP Finance—wants to add real transparency to his platform, he should take these policy proposals into consideration.