Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Sun Don’t Shine in Louisville

To continue my “Nothing to See in Louisville” story from yesterday about the virtual-closed-meeting of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, here’s the news for Friday: Nothing changed. All day, no papers. The “sunshine policy” doesn’t work.

The following log traces my dismal day Thursday, to document what no Presbyterian should be forced to endure at the hands of church entities at work.

  • 8:30 a.m.: I arrived at the meeting place, only to find the first meeting was at 1:15 p.m. ACSWP members were in a reading period from 9:00 to noon to read the reports. Okay. I’ll use the time for the same profitable reading, because nothing had been sent to me, not even an agenda.
  • 8:40 a.m.: I found ACSWP chair Nile Harper and made what has always before been a routine request for copies of the reports to read. He said that I could read the reports with the rest of the world after February 15, when they are released by the Office of General Assembly. I would not be given any reports to read. He did say that reports would be available in the working groups and plenary sessions, and I could see them there but couldn’t take them from the room or copy them. He told me the afternoon working groups would meet out in the public spaces, and I could join them. I protested the whole no-papers arrangement, to no avail.
  • 8:45 a.m.: I realized that I could have slept off my jet lag, with suddenly no ACSWP-related activity to do for nearly five hours. I flew from Seattle to Louisville for this?
  • 1:15 p.m.: ACSWP met briefly to break into three working groups to fine-tune the drafts they had received and read. Nile Harper informed me that they would now be meeting in private sleeping rooms and that I would not be allowed to join in on the meetings. The committee meetings were private. That was in direct contradiction with what he had told me previously, and no warning or explanation was given. When the working groups dispersed, I strongly pressed the case with Harper for following the denominational Open Meeting Policy. It was not pleasant. Only after I showed him the actual policy and pled my case vigorously did he relent and glumly take me to the working group of my choice.
  • 1:30 p.m. Nile Harper knocked on the sleeping room door of a work group hiding out from scrutiny. Oops! Wrong working group. But I saw apprehension written on some faces anyway. We went to the right room and Harper knocked there. He explained through the door that he was there to place me in that group because of the policy. I got to hear senior staff member Vernon Broyles complain bitterly that I don’t belong and shouldn’t be allowed in. Harper prevailed, and I got to join the happy little gathering of people who wished I would just go away. I was not allowed to see any of the papers they prepared for plenary. I could only listen and take sparing notes.
  • 4:30 p.m. We gathered in a meeting room for a plenary session. Now Evan Silverstein from the Presbyterian News Service also shared my no-paper plight. Nile Harper made it clear that we two would not be allowed to see any papers—again completely contradicting what he had said in the morning. The group worked through three papers, but Evan and I had no ability to ascertain what people were referring to in their comments. Our time was wasted.
  • 5:00 p.m. I try to call Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, GAC Executive Director John Detterick, and legal officer Mark Tammen in the Presbytery Center to alert them about the egregious violation of policy. Kirkpatrick was out. Tammen and Detterick had voicemail. I left messages. I also sent an e-mail.
  • 6:00 p.m. The group broke for dinner. Evan went to reason with Chris Iosso (staff Coordinator for ACSWP) and I talked with Nile Harper, again to no avail. Something had changed since he had talked with me in the morning, and now they didn’t plan to release any papers even to be read in the meeting room. Helen Locklear, Deputy Executive Director of GAC, was present. I talked briefly with her about the Open Meeting Policy, and she said she would talk with Harper. I joined Evan Silverstein in conversation with Chris Iosso and ended up in an extended debate with Iosso, who produced lame excuse after unsupportable reason why they didn’t need to comply with the plain spirit of the Open Meeting Policy. It was a most frustrating conversation. ACSWP simply didn’t want anyone to know yet what they were doing. Thus, they weren’t going to let us see it, plain and simple. I went to dinner.
  • 7:45 p.m. Back in the plenary meeting, Helen Locklear whispered that she had talked with John Detterick, and Mark Tammen would respond. Detterick would have liked to return my call, but I had failed to give him my cell number.
  • 7:50 p.m. Mark Tammen e-mailed a phone number, and I left the meeting to call him. We talked over 70 minutes, and by the end of the call and having heard my explanation, Tammen seemed ready to say that the policy ought to apply. I was relieved.
  • 10:22 p.m. Mark Tammen e-mailed an informal version of a “formal opinion” from his office. He basically ruled that although giving out papers to observers is customary and fits the spirit of open meetings, the policy is “aspirational” and he cannot rule that any groups are required to provide papers. If I wanted, I could go through the overture process at General Assembly and get the policy amended, however. What a thoughtful remedy!
  • All day Friday: ACSWP enjoyed its permission to continue trashing the spirit and purpose of open meetings by carefully hoarding their papers.

Doesn’t that sound like a fun two days of sweetness and light while in responsible pursuit of connectionalism?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim--Thanks for your work!

I wish I could say that your experience suprises me. It doesn't.

I don't know the people involved here, but this seems all too typical of what is killing our denomination.

"Trust us!", they cry--while they act in a manner that looks untrustworthy. I agree with the politician who said, "Trust--but verify!" But how can we trust, if we cannot verify and how can we be a denomination (One Body in the Lord) if we have more darkness and secrecy than light and honesty?

The possible answers to these questions are not very pleasant to face, but I guess you know that already!

May God bless your efforts to keep us fair and open.
(I'm glad its you there and not me--I wouldn't be so polite!)

12:14 PM, January 21, 2006  
Blogger Nancy Becker said...

Jim, I cannot say that I am surprised. the ACSWP has often arrogantly disregarded the rules that other entities abide by. Historically there is an attitude of being "above the rules". I don't even think an overture and a positive vote by the General Assembly would make any difference. What topic do you suppose requires such secrecy? You are a good journalist. Keep on keeping on.
- - Nancy Becker

2:38 PM, January 22, 2006  
Blogger L. Ooms said...

Thanks for your brave efforts as a missionary into deepest, darkest, uh.... PCUSA committee-land. The natives there surely need "the light" of openness that you preach!

12:22 PM, January 24, 2006  

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