Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Stated Clerk rules on open meetings

Following my dust-up with the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly issued, rather quietly, a ruling on the specifics of the incident I endured. Both ACSWP and I received copies of the opinion by e-mail, but one must do a sophisticated search to find it (see final section of this web document).

The decision does rule that papers should be made available in an open meeting, but it confuses which meetings must be open and it inexplicably honors calling papers "confidential," a practice that should be disallowed, if openness is the goal.

Following is a copy of what Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, ruled about open meetings--a ruling that was largely formulated by Mark Tammen and which he is treating now as settled law that only General Assembly can revise by official action.

Opinion on Interpreting the General Assembly Open Meeting Policy

The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP has requested an opinion from the Stated Clerk as to whether the ACSWP’s internal policy, “Respect for Pre-General Assembly Documents,” is consistent with the Open Meeting Policy. The ACSWP’s policy has been challenged and it seeks an Opinion of the Stated Clerk (Clerk) who has been provided a copy of that internal ACSWP document for review.

1. The Clerk makes this response pursuant to section 7 of the Open Meetings Policy. He reminds ACSWP and any Presbyterians desiring to observe a meeting of the Committee that as members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “…we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” (G-1.0305). We are all bound together by a common Covenant.

2. The relevant text of ACSWP’s internal policy is:

“…the preliminary texts of documents and reports being developed under the auspices of ACSWP or its task forces are to be treated as internal deliberations which remain confidential.”

3. The Clerk notes that the current Open Meeting Policy does not directly address the question of the sharing of documents being considered by a General Assembly entity, division, committee, or workgroup. He likewise notes that neither of the previous editions of the policy addressed the issue of the sharing of papers or reports. If the General Assembly wishes to impose such a practice on its entities, divisions, committees, and task forces, it may surely do so.

4. The Clerk further notes that the opening paragraph of the Open Meetings Policy affirms that “the work of the Church is strengthened when it is done in a spirit of openness and trust.” Such language would seem to presume observers of meetings should have access to documents that are critical to their understanding the deliberations that they are observing. Therefore the Clerk believes the presumption should favor the sharing of all documents under consideration by an entity, division, committee, or task group. It is incumbent upon observers to honor requests not to publish, or share the contents, such documents until the entity, division, committee, or task force has acted.

5. The Clerk draws a distinction between documents being considered for action by an entity, division, committee, or task force and those being discussed by a writing /drafting team that lacks authority to act on a document, but rather is charged with preparation of a document that will be proposed for action by an entity, division, committee, or task force.

6. Once a draft document comes before the entity, division, committee, or task force, the document should be made available to all observers.

[This posting is related to the posting titled: "Why we need a stronger Open Meeting Policy."]


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