Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Open Meetings: A Putty-Nose Policy

One of the best things going for fairness and good sense in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is its Open Meeting Policy. You read it, and you get a feeling of guilelessness and goodwill: “Throw the windows open and let everyone watch! Nothing to hide in here!” they seem to say. Yeah! A church does really benefit from such a policy.

But when you follow the application of our Open Meeting Policy, the sunshine gets dimmed all too often. Doors slam shut. Business mysteriously happens elsewhere, other than in the open meeting. People get huffy when one attempts to attend their meeting. And, most distressingly, the policy itself gets bent like a putty nose to fit the occasion when some entity wants secrecy.

Who is distorting that putty nose? Unfortunately, it’s coming directly out of the office charged with upholding our constitution--the Office of the General Assembly, headed by Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick. Specifically, the policy is being interpreted by Mark Tammen, Director of the Office of Constitutional Services. It’s his job. He has the authority. And, in my opinion, he’s tweaking the open meetings nose and damaging the openness of our open meetings by allowing various ways to keep observers out.

The most celebrated case of closed meetings is the Theological Task Force, which actually got a General Assembly warrant to hide out when their highly vaunted discernment process got a little dicey. Like an alcoholic who promises to drink “only for medicinal purposes,” the Task Force was soon imbibing closed sessions excessively. But at least they had a license to hide.

The Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) wasn’t accustomed to persons asking about observing their meetings, held last fall and winter. They had always just met and done their constitutional thing without anyone looking over their shoulders or raising pesky questions about consistency. Somewhat like the Wizard of Oz, they hoped no one paid any attention to the man behind the curtain. When Oregon pastor Rich Zimmerman asked how to observe the ACC meetings he was stalled and put off. Finally when he persisted in actually getting information, he was written off by Tammen as “confused.”

However, because there was no good excuse to hide, the ACC did let Michael Walker of PFR observe, and Jim Tony of the Presbyterian Coalition was allowed to listen in by speaker phone. But it wasn’t easy.

When I attempted to be part of committee meetings and read the papers and reports at the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy in January, I was treated by ACSWP as a party crasher. In an ostensibly open meeting, I couldn’t view any of the papers they spent hours discussing. I asked Tammen to clarify open meetings to ACSWP leadership. He did. He told them they could show me the papers and that many groups would. But he made it clear that “I do not believe our office has any basis to import such a right” for me to see the papers.

Why wouldn’t he apply the generous language of the policy to ACSWP? Because the policy didn’t mention papers in particular. He ruled narrowly, although the policy itself is grandly expansive: “Church leaders have a basic responsibility to … [conduct] their business with a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny.”

It’s odd, then, that when ACC met again, Tammen ruled extremely broadly--unreasonably so, I would say--to allow ACC to meet in a closed session. The reason Tammen gave was that someone had mentioned that ACC needed to allow observers, lest it be liable to a remedial action under our church Rules of Discipline.

So here’s the broad interpretation of the Open Meeting Policy: Tammen ruled that because of the possible ecclesiastical action, the open meeting exception for “civil and criminal litigation” applied. Tammen ruled that possible church remedial action should just be lumped in with actual civil and criminal litigation. So the meeting was closed.

If one uses possible ecclesiastical action for a reason, every single meeting held by any entity could be closed, since every one is subject to possibly administrative review or remedial action. “Ecclesiastical litigation” wasn’t listed specifically in the Open Meeting Policy, but Tammen must have penciled it in for good measure.

Thus Tammen ruled narrowly to close part of the ACSWP meeting, and he ruled broadly to close part of the ACC meeting. Do you notice the outcome? His rulings on an Open Meeting Policy resulted in closed meetings.

The same kind of broad ruling closed part of the most recent General Assembly Council meeting when GAC was discussing the budget. Because staff positions would be cut, GAC went into a closed meeting, using the “personnel” exception to close the meeting. Staff performance wasn’t being discussed, only departments and positions to get the axe. But even though it was a budget discussion, which is intended to be done in the open, the meeting was allowed to be closed. A broad ruling, which again closed a meeting.

Do you see the trend? When in doubt, figure a way to frustrate the clear meaning of the Open Meeting Policy. You would think the tendency would be to live out the grand, open intent, instead.

One final example: I’ll be going to Pasadena in July to observe the coming ACSWP meeting. Since I’d had such difficulties at the previous meeting, I wrote ahead to establish that I would be admitted and would be granted the ability to actually hold and read copies of papers the committee would be discussing and acting on. I wrote Chris Iosso, Coordinator for ACSWP.

I heard back from Mark Tammen. An attorney. Oh, great…

(To be continued.)


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