6 min

New Youthquest board holding firm

Survives locking out, police call, and legitimacy questions

TOUGH ROAD AHEAD. New board members Judy Biluk (left) and Nathaniel Wolfe faced repeated challenges in their first weeks since youth led a coup to make Youthquest more focussed on drop-ins serving them. By the end of week two, Biluk resigned from the presidency for health reasons. Credit: Robin Perelle

One month after a coup rocked BC’s largest youth-support organization, Youthquest is still reeling from the aftershocks-not to mention the on-going conflicts still simmering just beneath the surface.

The first aftershock surged to the forefront Oct 19, a week after Youthquest members overthrew their old board of directors and allegedly elected 11 new people to take over the helm (and make it more youth-focussed). When the new directors tried to hold their first meeting, they encountered changed locks, a lawyer, two police officers and an executive director so concerned about the electoral process that he questions the very legitimacy of the new board it produced.

There were a number of irregularities surrounding that election, director Randy Keats contends. “The bylaws were trampled.”

Keats points, in particular, to who voted that night. “To all intents and purposes, I can say that there were no members present that evening,” he says, claiming that the people who voted were not eligible to vote-an allegation the new board members vehemently dispute.

There were “no irregularities in the voting at all,” counters Nathaniel Wolfe, the new board’s secretary.

Nothing in the bylaws says that if an election doesn’t turn out the way some people want it to, another one should be held, adds Judy Biluk, also voted onto the new board that night. That “sounds like an American election-I lost, I lost, let’s do it again.”

Keats is not reassured. “Their claim to legitimacy as a board is in question,” he maintains, adding that he has serious misgivings “about the legitimacy of these people claiming to be a board of directors for a society in British Columbia.”

Such concerns drove Keats and former board chair, Jim Mann, to seek out legal advice after the election. “I went to a lawyer because I saw what I evaluate as inappropriate behaviour and an inappropriate outcome to an annual general meeting,” Keats says.

New Westminster lawyer Laurence Scott says he was pleased to help out free of charge. Based on Keats’ and Mann’s allegations, he wrote a letter to the new directors, urging them to hold a new election “without delay.”

“The validity of voting members, the integrity of the voting process and the legitimacy of the election of officers and directors of a Society is critical to the maintenance of confidence and trust in that Society,” Scott writes.

“In view of the serious breakdown of the voting process, as it has been described to us… we are of the view that the annual general meeting ended with a result that raises too many concerns and too many questions relating to the validity of the meeting itself and the legitimacy of its outcome.”

Wolfe rejects the lawyer’s finding. “There was never any question about our validity until Jim Mann showed up with a lawyer,” he contends.

Asked what he plans to do about the lawyer’s recommendation to hold a new election, Wolfe says he’s basically going to ignore it. “We’re just going ahead as the new board,” he says.

He will likely get that chance.

Though Mann forwarded a copy of the lawyer’s letter-plus a letter of his own summarizing his concerns about the election-to the BC registry of incorporated societies and companies, little will likely come of it. The registry, responsible for updating the files of all registered BC societies (including Youthquest’s new list of directors), doesn’t get involved in such internal matters, says its director John Powell.

If the new board wants to hold a new election, it can, Powell says, but he has no plans to intervene on the basis of one letter of complaint.

Mann says he has no plans to launch any further challenge, either. “It’s out of my hands,” he says from a brief vacation in Palm Springs. “It’s up to the new board.”

Still, legitimacy questions continue to hang over the new board. “The legitimacy questions have not been resolved,” Keats warns. “They are going to proceed to operate as a if they are a valid board of directors until such time as they are sanctioned by the province or shut down.”

The new directors got a taste of life on the illegitimate side Oct 19, when they tried to hold their first meeting after the election. When they arrived at the Youthquest office, they found Keats had changed the locks and was reluctant to let them in.

Though Keats says he primarily changed the locks to bring them into line with the building’s master key plan, he admits he also had a second purpose: he was concerned the new directors might try to access confidential files in the office. As a registered society, Youthquest’s files are public information, he concedes, but they may contain confidential information about some of the youth who use the drop-ins.

Biluk still can’t believe Keats locked the new directors out. “It was a shock,” she says. “To change the locks, that’s pretty extreme. To lock out a newly elected board…”

The shock didn’t end there. Keats and Mann had also invited the lawyer to present his letter in person. Together, they tried to move the meeting to a different office-one that would be larger and “better suited,” Keats says.

The new directors refused. “We had booked a meeting, a simple meeting, and we had every right to be there,” Biluk says.

After some negotiation, the new directors were allowed inside-if only to hear the lawyer’s presentation. After that, Keats once again renewed his recommendation to relocate the rest of the meeting.

The new directors refused again.

So Keats called the police.

“We had a group of very hostile individuals in the Youthquest office and I had concerns for the safety and security of the Youthquest premises,” Keats says.

Though the police were pleasant and an agreement was eventually reached whereby the new board could stay in the office provided they didn’t go near Keats’ files, Biluk says the whole experience was intimidating.

“Why would you want to do that to a new board?” she asks. “We have enough challenges!”

Those challenges don’t all stem from the legitimacy question. The new directors are also facing a number of other unresolved conflicts left over from the old board’s reign.

The subject of Youthquest Prince George, for example, remains highly contentious. The affiliate claims it still hasn’t seen a penny from the $35,000 grant it was supposed to receive from the BC government-a grant Keats confirmed receiving in August.

Then there’s the question of whether Prince George is still an affiliate at all. Its members say it is; Keats says he suspended it by “executive order” after some members told Xtra West they were resigning in frustration in August.

Prince George organizer Michael McDonald says he has put too much time into Youthquest to abandon the organization now. “We don’t want to see it go under,” he says.

McDonald is now the vice-president of Youthquest’s new board. Among his priorities: he wants to get to the bottom of the head office-Prince George conflict so he can get back to the northern outreach workshops the grant is supposed to cover.

Then there’s the Smithers situation. It, too, has been having trouble with Youthquest’s head office. Its coordinator, Charles Wilson, says he’s been feeling neglected ever since Keats’ predecessor, Monika Chappell, left in May.

It’s a sentiment still widely echoed throughout the organization’s drop-ins. “I felt I was on my own,” Dillon Lazaroff, the Surrey drop-in coordinator, told Xtra West last issue.

Youthquest is supposed to be about the drop-ins, she says, but the old board neglected the drop-ins and the youth they’re supposed to serve-and prioritized all the wrong things.

That’s a short-sighted perspective, counters Gary Mitchell, who joined the new board then resigned in frustration when he saw the direction it was planning to take. “It all sounds good to say, ‘the youth, the youth, the youth,'” he says, but the fact is Youthquest needs funding to survive, and that’s what the old board was focussing on.

Keats agrees. “Youthquest was in crisis financially” when he took over in July, he says. The bank account was almost completely depleted and no one was looking for new money. That’s why he put all his energy into fundraising and enhancing Youthquest’s profile to attract new donors. Admittedly, he says, the drop-ins felt “a squeeze” as a result, but “rather than being patient until we stabilize and get back on track, they launched a coup.

“What we were doing was for Youthquest [and] the drop-ins,” he repeats. “We just needed a little patience.”

Youthquest’s members and new directors will all need a little more patience now: Keats left on stress leave last week and will likely need at least six weeks to recover.

All the conflict between the old board and the new left him feeling caught in the middle, Keats says. Now he’s worried about his health and the future of the organization as a whole.

“Youthquest is in crisis,” he says.

Biluk agrees. “Right now we’re in a crisis,” she echoes, pointing to all the challenges facing the organization and its new board, in particular. Though Biluk was initially elected chair of the new board, she resigned two weeks later for her own medical reasons.

That means the board, having started with all 11 spots filled, is now down to just six directors. (In addition to Biluk and Mitchell’s departures, a few more people had to step down because they were under 19 years of age, and Lazaroff had to step down because employees can’t sit on the board.)

Still, short-handed and under seige though the new board may be, Biluk remains hopeful for Youthquest. This doesn’t need to be the demise of Youthquest, she says. “I think it can be a revival, a rejuvenation.”

Wolfe agrees wholeheartedly. “I have a lot of hope for this society,” he says, noting that the office is already running more smoothly since the new directors started taking shifts to clean it up.

“I don’t believe that Youthquest is in crisis,” Wolfe continues. “I believe we have had many ups and downs in the past and right now we’re in a difficult phase.

“But Youthquest has risen like a phoenix from the ashes before,” he says, and it will again.