Friday, November 11, 2005

Closed Doors and Confusion

Why do Presbyterian meeting doors keep slamming shut? What is going on that the whole world can't witness? How many more ways can we twist a transparent open-door policy to permit secrecy and withhold public information?

The report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church was greatly handicapped by being forged in secret. The very group that was supposed to lead the church into dealing theologically with disputes could not summon the courage to deal openly with their disputes, and retreated behind closed doors for nearly all of their discussions and decisions. In order to meet privately, they exploited to the nth degree a small exception to an excellent open-door policy in effect in our denomination.

Now, news comes that the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee slammed the doors shut on their meeting with Motorola, a target for possible divestment because of their business with the Israeli police and military. This meeting was part of a graduated series of steps to bring pressure on Motorola, a process that could lead to divestment of 644,400 shares of Motorola stock owned by Presbyterian entities.

So how could an organization with a firm open-door policy kick everybody out in order to hold a closed session? MRTI invoked a clause in the open-meetings policy that "In certain circumstances, when the confidentiality of the subject matter is impeding the open work of the group, its meetings may be closed." Among the requirements is that "Subjects dealt with must be limited to property negotiation, personnel, civil and criminal litigation, or security."

In a church that properly expects its entities to operate out in the open, so that the entire church--and, indeed, the world--may see, evaluate, and approve of what is being done on their behalf, why would there be the opportunity to close some meetings? A need for confidentiality of some subject matter is the key reason, along with security:

  • For property matters, you obviously can't have possible sellers knowing that "We'll offer $1 million to buy that property, but we could go as high as $1.5 million if necessary." In bona fide property negotiations, a buyer or seller needs some confidentiality in order to negotiate the terms successfully. Were the MRTI team meeting to come up with strategy prior to their time with Motorola, perhaps that strategy meeting could be closed. MRTI wouldn't want Motorola to know that "We'll press for XYZ, but if they give us only X and Z, let's be satisfied." But that wasn't the closed meeting. The closed meeting was WITH Motorola! The party kept out was the Presbyterian Church as a whole.
  • In personnel matters, discretion about an individual's activities and performance is a kindness and most often is required, in order to limit possible legal repercussions. Also, salary and benefit negotiations would hardly be fair if the candidate knew the upper figure possible for remuneration, or what everybody else is being paid.
  • Civil and criminal litigation require confidentiality for legal and personal-rights reasons.
  • Security is a little more subjective, but if a meeting is being made impossible through disruption, threats, intimidation, or criminal action, steps obviously need to be taken to prevent disaster. Rare should security be invoked as a reason to close Presbyterian meetings, however! And security was not the stated reason for closing the MRTI-Motorola meeting.

So how could the MRTI meetings be closed? They used the pretext of "property negotiations." The stock we hold is technically property, they'll be talking about that property with Motorola, and so that discussion was deemed sufficient to fall under the "property negotiations" exception to the open-meetings policy.

Really? Does that make any sense to you?

What is to be gained by a closed meeting? By not allowing the press or any Presbyterians to witness what their MRTI committee was hashing out with Motorola, is MRTI preserving some kind of necessary advantage for Presbyterians as a whole against "nasty" Motorola, with whom we were ostensibly engaged in "property negotiations"? I have no idea what that advantage would be. It's not as if we Presbyterians have a purchase price we're holding secret and don't want Motorola to know.

What's more, the party being kept OUT of the meetings is not the "adversary"--Motorola--it's all of us Presbyterians who don't know what is being done in our stead! The parties being sheltered from scrutiny and protected from accountability are the MRTI and Motorola representatives. The Presbyterian Church doesn't benefit from closing those doors, but our representatives on MRTI and Motorola's representatives sure do. They don't have to deal with any accountability for what they said and did in a session off-limits to everyone else who SHOULD be in that room!

Let's say that our MRTI team made outrageous demands, operated from naive and false economic and political assumptions, expected ridiculous concessions from Motorola, and generally embarrassed the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). If so, they could do it with impunity. No correction would be possible, because we Presbyterians have no idea what they said and did.

On the contrary, let's say that our MRTI team acted brilliantly, responsibly, and with devastating insight and accuracy. They had their case down cold, and pinned Motorola to the mat, making Motorola look foolish and churlish. Does the innate fairness and brilliance of their case help any of the rest of us see the light and make up our minds, too? No. The case was wasted, since it was made behind closed doors.

Okay, let's say that Motorola acted remote and uncaring, stonewalling any attempt for information or exchange of ideas. Or maybe they really goofed up and gave the MRTI team information that actually hurt the Motorola case and buttressed the case for divestment. Does anybody but the MRTI team benefit from this knowledge? No. No one else got to see it.

Or, let's say that Motorola was exceedingly courteous, professional, knowledgeable, and competent in their talk with MRTI, perhaps clearing up misconceptions or proving how allegations against them are baseless. Maybe they so argued their case that open-minded persons would believe that Motorola is doing good rather than doing harm, and they should be supported, rather than hounded. With a closed meeting, any of that would need to be transmitted second-hand, either from Motorola or MRTI, each of which might not be entirely trusted by one party or another. Since no one witnessed the actual event, second-hand reports from interested parties would have to suffice.

So why the closed meeting? There is no justification for it, other than the possible comfort of the representatives of both sides who don't have to have their statements and actions subject to scrutiny. The PCUSA doesn't gain by having those meetings closed. Why couldn't the world hear our case for why, if Motorola doesn't shape up to what MRTI wants, we should sell our stock? Why couldn't the whole world hear Motorola's case for why possible divestment is unfair or unwise?

This was no "property negotiation." Closing the meeting was not only imprudent for pragmatic reasons; it was an abuse of a very necessary and useful open-meetings policy. I would only wish that our Associate Stated Clerk would not so blithely defend such harmful misapplication of a prudent policy.


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