Editorial: The AMS’s proposed revisions to its Records Policy are bad for transparency

The AMS is not practicing good governance.

On Wednesday night, AMS Council is set to vote on a motion to revise its Records Policy (SR2) that, if passed, would mean members of the AMS (a.k.a. students) cannot request access to internal correspondence, transition reports or raw data (data collected by or for the AMS).

The proposed changes come after The Ubyssey requested access to redacted emails from the AMS related to the hiring of AMS President Eshana Bhangu as interim VP finance and discussions around the amendments to the Video Surveillance Policy (SR14) that now allows filming inside Safewalk and other AMS vehicles in September.

In response to the request, Bhangu and AMS Archivist Sheldon Goldfarb said email correspondences are not considered records under AMS code and bylaws.

“According to the AMS Bylaws, AMS members can access records and books. Correspondence, in the way the Bylaws currently are written, does not fall under that category,” Bhangu wrote in an emailed statement to The Ubyssey.

At the time of our request, emails seemed to be considered an AMS record — bylaw 18(1) states, “All reports, correspondence and any records … shall remain with the Society to be kept at the offices of the Society” — but it was surprising to learn that they cannot be requested by students.

We also requested access to the Electoral Administrator transition report — which was rejected on similar grounds and would not be requestable under the amended Policy SR2.

We understand that some documents need to remain confidential; The Ubyssey isn’t asking for records that would leave the personal information of AMS staff and members up for grabs. All we’re asking for is to be able to access redacted documents that society members should be entitled to view.

These new restrictions on what documents students can access could be codified on Wednesday.

Making internal correspondence and raw data unrequestable by students is bad for many reasons.

Such a practice is bad for transparency — a topic that candidates in AMS elections, including the current execs, have been promising to address for years.

The Ubyssey has its own reasons for wanting to be able to request AMS emails: to help with our reporting and to hold student leaders accountable. But, students in general should also be able to request emails from their democratically-elected and student-funded leaders.

Why can’t a student see email conversations between the VP finance and Studentcare related to coverage under the AMS/GSS Health & Dental Plan? Why can’t a student see emails between the VP academic and university affairs and a student advocacy group?

Refusing to allow students to see these records also makes it harder for the AMS to call on other bodies, like UBC or the Student Legal Fund Society, to be more transparent with students. Why should people listen to calls for frankness in governance when those demanding these changes are themselves not practicing transparency?

The proposed changes leave the door open for case-by-case exceptions for requesting these documents. But, the AMS is still able to leave students in the dark about what’s going on a vast majority of the time — and gives the student society an easy excuse for not sharing anything that could damage its reputation.

There is a precedent for requesting emails from the AMS. In 2020, The Ubyssey reported on conflict of interest allegations against then-AMS VP External Kalith Nanayakkara.

When asked about this precedent, Bhangu said this “past lack of compliance with the Bylaw section has been by one individual, and it is not a norm.”

Why can’t it be the norm?

Part of the issue is that the AMS is a private entity. Other public institutions like UBC and the provincial government are required to release emails and correspondences when requested under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).

Another issue is that the BC Societies Act — the law outlining how private organizations like the AMS function — doesn’t require these groups to even comply with records requests. In this regard, the AMS is being generous.

Despite this generosity, the AMS can do more — and the first step would be for councillors to vote against the revisions to Policy SR2 on Wednesday.

The AMS might not fall under FIPPA, and the Societies Act might not require compliance with record requests, but that does not mean it should explicitly prevent sharing emails and data upon request.

Similarly, Bhangu wrote in her statement, “We are happy to consider making exceptions in exceptional circumstances, but we must ensure compliance with our Bylaws to the best of our ability.” Yet, nothing in AMS code or bylaws explicitly prevents the sharing of emails.

We urge the AMS to follow its word and commit to transparent governance by voting against these proposed changes to Policy SR2.

Editorials represent the opinions of the editorial board of The Ubyssey.