AMS no longer tripping

New AMS policy keeps more of this year’s staff in town

AMS Municipal Affairs Commissioner Paul Tye left a May town-gown symposium in Oshawa early because he felt it was a waste of student dollars.
AMS Municipal Affairs Commissioner Paul Tye left a May town-gown symposium in Oshawa early because he felt it was a waste of student dollars.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo

When Municipal Affairs Commissioner Paul Tye hit the road for a conference in Oshawa last May, he had good intentions for the student dollars it took to make the trip.

Tye was destined for a town-gown symposium at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. He said the conference revolved around an open discussion of the issues that run through town-gown relations provincewide.

“It has been tradition that the municipal affairs commissioner attends this conference,” Tye said, adding that the event is only a few years old.

Including transportation, food and accommodation costs, the tab for the trip came to about $500. Had he decided to stay for the duration of the three-day event, Tye said it would have been more. Instead, he left a day early and asked for a partial refund.

“I felt like I was wasting student dollars being there,” he said.

“It’s a conference that is useful in some regard, but I think, because we approach the issues of town-gown so creatively and uniquely [at Queen’s], that we’re in fact very far ahead of many other places and so our ability to learn from the other people in attendance isn’t really that great.”

Tye said the Municipal Affairs Commission’s budget this year is lower than it was in previous years. As a result, he didn’t think the symposium was valuable enough to justify spending that much money.

“It was actually a judgment call on how appropriate a use of student funds there was,” he said.

Tye said he has already recommended that next year’s municipal affairs commissioner turn down the invitation to the town-gown symposium.

When he attended the May event, he had only been in his position for a couple of weeks.

“I was led to believe that it was a good conference and I had to go,” he said.

“Last year’s executive attended a lot of conferences and a lot of expensive ones and there was very little questioning as to whether they were appropriate.”

AMS Vice-President (University Affairs) Stephanie St. Clair said the AMS has cut back attendance to student-dollar funded conferences across the board this year. This summer she wrote a new conference policy, which requires a calculation of the total cost of attending a conference, as well as a brief proposal. The AMS executive has to approve the event and the attendee is required to write a report upon return.

“I was surprised that one didn’t exist already,” St. Clair said of the policy. “When I first came into office my inbox was flooded with all these invitations to conferences. My counterparts at other universities are often not on campus for huge stretches of time because they’re away at conferences. Given the work we do here it seemed ludicrous to send people halfway across the country for something that may not even be applicable.”

Past executive teams haven’t done as much cost-benefit analysis as they probably could have when it comes to conferences and symposiums, St. Clair said.

“When you’re coming back from a conference you should be explaining exactly what you got out of it for next year,” she said.

Last year, former AMS Vice-President (University Affairs) Julia Mitchell, former Commissioner of Internal Affairs Caitlin Adair and former Director of Judicial Affairs Jeff Warshafsky attended a four-day conference in Clearwater, Florida.

The event, hosted by the Association of Student Judicial Affairs, was deemed “an excellent educational tool for AMS staff and volunteers involved in the NAD system,” according to a report authored by the attendees.

They also wrote that “although the VPUA is not intricately involved in the system, this might encourage more involvement” and that “although there are some aspects of training that would be useful for the start of the year, the conference still is beneficial for outgoing students.”

In its final pages, the report says the decision to attend the conference was made “last minute,” which affected the “ability to make ideal travel plans.” St. Clair said this year’s AMS has yet to decide whether to attend the conference, even though it’s scheduled for Feb. 4.

“I’m definitely not going on it,” St. Clair said. “Right now we haven’t made a final decision on it; our current perspective is that we’re probably not going to go, I guess because we went last year and we got quite a bit out of it.”

St. Clair said the useful information in the report makes attendance at the event—which will be held in Florida once again

—worthy of consideration. At the same time, she said, the somewhat costly trip to Florida puts a different spin on this particular conference.

“We want to evaluate what kinds of sessions are being run,” she said. “It’s a different evaluation process when you’re going to Florida.”

The AMS took a somewhat unusual approach to non-academic discipline this year and is working on a project a little closer to home, St. Clair said. Currently, they’re in talks with a group called Resolve Kingston, which has offered to help with conflict resolution training for issues between community members and students.

Although she and Academic Affairs Commissioner Matthew Lombardi rent a car once a month to drive to Toronto for a day-long OUSA meeting—a trip which is covered by the OUSA budget—St. Clair hasn’t attended any conferences this year and has no plans to attend any during the remainder of her term.

She said the executive council hasn’t had to turn down any requests from commissioners regarding conferences this year.

“As a council we sort of decided early on that we were really going to be more internally focused, especially with the conference policy I think that was made pretty clear,” she said.

“We’ve turned down quite a few, and a few that the AMS has attended in the past that just haven’t been that useful to us.”

Vice-President (Operations) Ken Wang said the new policy—and in particular, the time that goes into writing a report—probably added to the lack of enthusiasm around out-of-town conferences this year.

“I guess by virtue of having to write these things, people would probably go to less of them,” Wang said.

The conference proposal form requires staff members to detail the event’s location, cost, duration, number of attendees and the purpose and scope of the conference.

“It’s just kind of an accountability issue,” Wang said.

“We don’t really have a way of documenting the things that we learn from these conferences … so this is just a way of keeping records, as well as, I guess, more accountability.”

This year, he said, the Assembly budget for conferences and meetings is $3,000. In previous years, the budget has allocated much more toward the events. In 2005-06, for instance, the total came to $15,410.71.

Because the AMS is the only entirely student-run student government in the country, Wang said it tends to serve as a guide for other schools who attend conferences. Sometimes, he said, that means conferences aren’t particularly useful for the AMS.

“A lot of the time we go and it’s just, like, us, I guess, providing the information. So there isn’t really too much point in terms of value we’re getting back.”

AMS President Talia Radcliffe will be travelling to Herstmonceux Castle just before reading week, but the trip won’t fall under AMS budget because she’s going with Dean of Student Affairs Jason Laker.

“I’m going with Jason Laker so I assume that it’s from his budget, but I don’t know exactly how he’s financing it,” Radcliffe said.

But one AMS staff member doesn’t have to write reports about the conferences he attends. AMS General Manager Claude Sherren attended a conference at Fanshawe College in November. The conference, hosted by the Association of Managers of Colleges and Universities and Student Centres, brings student centre managers from across the province together to discuss problems and ideas.

Sherren said the event was regional, but as recently as the 2006-07 academic year, he attended a national version in Winnipeg. He said student government executives used to accompany him to the regional conferences.

“All conferences, part of it’s the organization, part of it’s the social connection and a lot of it is learning from each other and comparing notes and finding out good things,” Sherren said.

“It’s not as spectacular as it used to be. It used to be a national meeting … every May. And that was wonderful.”

Sherren said attendance at the conference from Nov. 12 to 15 costs about $400. Along with conference fees, he said, there are also membership fees, accommodation fees and train costs totaling more than $850.

The AMS decided the national conference, which took place in Banff this year, would have cost too much.

“It’s just a lot of money … I would have loved to go and, you know, I’m sure I would have learned something.”

Sherren said the national event could have been a $4,000 effort, whereas the total bill at Fanshawe came to $881.33.

Sherren, who has attended the conference every year since he started working at Queen’s 13 years ago, said delegates discuss clubs management, off-campus housing, tax issues, retail operations, lease and facilities agreements and food services.

“Most of the general managers are more directly engaged with operations than I am,” he said. “It’s always useful [even though] the topic might not be one that I’m particularly driven to do and I’ll either go there and contribute or … go there and listen or do both.”

Sherren said he’s never written a report about his experiences at a conference and there are no formal processes involved.

“I keep my own notes and I certainly pass on issues and documentation and stuff that I really think can apply,” he said.

“We could go back 13 years and figure out how much was spent on making the general manager smarter and other general managers smarter,” he said with a laugh.

Radcliffe said Sherren didn’t report on his experiences in November because he was accompanied by Stephen Chow, the AMS’s student centre and clubs co-ordinator, who filed a report with St. Clair.

“We don’t require a report from every single person that goes to a conference,” Radcliffe said. “With a student centre, there is a lot of institutional memory that needs to be transferred so I’m sure that’s why both Claude and Stephen went.”

—With files from Michael Woods

Spending student dollars

Despite the overall stay-at-home approach the AMS has taken this year, executive members and commissioners still need to make large purchases and rentals.

AMS Controller Scott Bell said the AMS credit card can be used for pre-approved purchases. Bell, who has been controller for 12 years, said he has refined the card-use procedure a number of times. Currently, a manager or a commissioner can use it by filling out a voucher indicating what the charges are for. The voucher must also be signed by a director or vice-president (University Affairs) Stephanie St. Clair.

“When they make the purchase they’re to return the card to us and to return any copies of invoices which are sometimes delayed,” Bell said. “Usually we do have vouchers in place; sometimes people forget to print off copies of invoices online and that sort of thing. But the charges are eventually tracked down.”

Bell said there’s no limit to the amount an authorized student can spend using the credit card, as long as the purchase itself is authorized.

“We need invoices for backup to ensure that the purchases are valid purchases,” he said, adding that, to date, there haven’t been any requests for purchases that weren’t seen as a valid expense of the AMS.

In December, however, a series of e-mails sent to AMS staff indicated that more than $7,000 worth of charges went unclaimed.

Bell wrote an e-mail Dec. 3 reminding AMS staff to print receipts or invoices for their purchases, adding that he had a number of charges with no supporting documents.

In an e-mail written five days later, Wang asked AMS staff to claim the charges, to write vouchers for intended purchases and to return the card.

—Kerri MacDonald

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