Sunday, June 18, 2006

Committee punts on open meetings

BIRMINGHAM -- Open meetings are a topic of business at General Assembly this week. Commissioner Michael Carey from Central Florida Presbytery introduced a Commissioner Resolution (CR) to make it official business before the Assembly. The Carey CR seeks to spell out aspects of the fine Open Meeting Policy that ought to be clear but have been disputed.

I'm thankful for Carey's hard work to try to preserve the openness that leads toward more trust and accountability in our denomination--aspects of our life together that are not in ample supply. I got to catch part of his presentation in the General Assembly Procedures Committee on Sunday, and he was magnificent.

The problem was, however, that he had the misfortune of presenting the second-to-last item on an agenda that had stretched nearly to the breaking point the hours of the committee's meeting as well as their nerves and stamina. Tired from business that had already consumed them, they were unwilling to offer an open hearing for anyone other than establishment figures to bring information about the problem of diminishing openness in meetings.

This limited the perspective the committee members did hear to a rather one-sided litany of red herrings from some representatives of denominational entities. For instance, Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy coordinator Chris Iosso named me and pointed at me in the gallery. His testimony imagined all the dreadful things that could happen when people get hold of committee papers--people like me.

Other warnings of the grave problems of drafts on the loose, if applied to other entities such as the General Assembly itself, would logically necessitate the closing off of all General Assembly committee meetings, such as the one in which we were participating. If the supposed problems of public drafts that we heard in this committee were applied across the board, none of not-yet-finally-approved GA papers would be available to the public during General Assembly meetings, either.

The time given to staff and advisory personnel greatly dominated the committee time and thoroughly poisoned their perspective. When the committee members began to debate the motion to approve Carey's CR, many appeared all too ready to sacrifice their right to open meetings on the altar of imagined fears of ill deeds by malicious observers. They dealt in large part with conjured eventualities the CR would never occasion, should it be implemented.

Thus, it was no surprise when the committee ended up referring the matter to the Committee on the Office of General Assembly "and other appropriate committees" for a report back to General Assembly in two years. When too tired to advance the ball, punt.

On Wednesday afternoon, most likely, General Assembly will consider the committee recommendation and make the final decision. Perhaps the other commissioners will be able to give the matter a fairer hearing, unsullied by negative and fearful assumptions and only half the story.

It would be a shame for General Assembly to be made so fearful that they would blithely relinquish any aspect of the basic right of Presbyterians to observe their church at work.


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