Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Why we need a stronger Open Meeting Policy

Yesterday I wrote about the Open Meeting Policy, which has been interpreted lately in both loose and tight ways, whichever allows more meetings or materials to be closed to observers. Like a putty nose, our policy has been mashed this way and that to blunt the excellent intent of a wide-open church.

Where the story left off, I had inquired about what my welcome would be at the July Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy meeting in Pasadena. I wrote ACSWP Coordinator Chris Iosso. I heard back from Mark Tammen, in very lawyerly fashion, to wit:


I hope that you and ACSWP can have this meeting without the difficulties you all experienced last meeting, but I want to be clear about several issues you have raised.

1. I do NOT believe you are entitled to present, nor receive documents from a writing /drafting team that lacks authority to act on a document..." (Item 5 of Stated Clerk's

2. ACSWP may of course admit you and give you such materials, but if they decide to do so, I do hope that you will honor the last sentence of Item 4 of the Stated Clerk's Opinion "It is incumbent upon observers to honor requests not to publish, or share the contents, such documents until the entity, division, committee, or taskforce has acted."

The Open meetings policy does not provide you any right to decide on your own that such materials should be available to the entire church. Only after such materials have been considered by the plenary would I see any basis in the open meetings policy for you to share documents with others. Until action has taken place, no public distribution (beyond the meeting room) is anticipated by the Policy.

3. Unless materials ready for action by the plenary have been sent out in advance, I do not believe the policy provides you any right to them. It surely provides you no right to share them publicly prior to consideration by the ACSWP Plenary.

Hope the above understandings will help assure a more satisfactory interaction this time.


mark Tammen


I replied to Mark:


Yours are excellent provisions to defeat the purposes of an open meeting.

What I fail to understand is how you can feel any honor in subverting the meaning and intent of a good policy. Policies are meant to be actually followed, not merely aspired toward. And they CAN be actually followed, unless they are allowed to be corrupted.

Open means open. People can see and hear. People can read. People can later comment in public. People have the right to observe their business being transacted and to know what's going on. The Open Meeting Policy is intended to OPEN meetings, not to close them and hoard the business for the jealous eyes of only the elect with petty plans to keep their work secret.

I am so disappointed in your continuing to aid and abet a parochial, self-serving, distrusting, and clearly unopen practice of ACSWP, which is so very contrary to an open meeting. It is THEIR practices about secrecy that need to change to conform to the Open Meeting Policy; the Open Meeting Policy should not be bent like a putty nose to accommodate secrecy.

By what stretch of the imagination is this reasonable: Someone who can pay to travel to Pasadena and attend the meeting is privileged with seeing and reading papers that are the church's business (not ACSWP's solely), and yet persons who cannot make the trip or take the time off of work have no business also having access to those papers being considered in an open meeting? What goes on in an open meeting is open to the public. Papers brought out and discussed in an open meeting necessarily become open to the public. They are no longer private, nor should they be allowed to be deemed private or confidential. That is so fundamentally obvious that you have to turn logic on its head to contend otherwise. What good and noble purpose is served by wrapping secrecy around what is intended to be open?

There is no justification for such jealous hoarding of papers--not in an OPEN meeting. To twist our very open rules in order to allow ACSWP to continue such a process that is inimical to openness in meetings simply does not do justice to the trust we have put in you in your position. You make yourself a servant of those who would block the penetrating warmth of sunshine.

Exactly how am I supposed to go to Pasadena, probably get shut out of committee meetings again because they'll suddenly be called "writing/drafting teams without authority," be denied papers until the last minute if at all, be expected to treat papers as state secrets, and write nothing about anything I've read so that others might have the advantage of actually knowing what THEIR ACSWP is doing--and yet somehow avoid "the difficulties you all experienced last meeting"? In what alternate moral universe is this supposed to happen? Certainly not in the PCUSA, with an excellent open meeting policy.

Reread the Open Meeting Policy. There is a party that has a definite DUTY and a party that has a definite RIGHT. Yet you have totally reversed the roles, trying to foist a bogus DUTY on me while gifting ACSWP with a right they do not and should not have. I don't call that justice.

And why are you writing me? I made simple requests to Chris Iosso, who I am sure has the ability to respond.


James D. Berkley


Chris Iosso did then write back from ACSWP, kindly giving me details of their meeting and inviting me to attend--well, most of the meetings. He said that ACSWP “may also determine that some of their business or small-group work requires the Committee to invoke provisions of the Open Meeting policy that allow deliberation specifically by those elected to do it.” I think that means that some sessions could have a new magic name that would allow secrecy: “Writing/Drafting Teams.”

I replied to Iosso, thanking him for the information he sent, speaking again about open meetings, and closing with “You will remember that the policy is to insure that meetings are truly open. The policy is not meant to provide excuses to close off portions of the meeting, except for the very carefully proscribed four exceptions. I will expect to be allowed entrance to the meetings, required to be open, that any member of the church would receive.”

Then I heard again from Mark Tammen:

I am pleased to see that Chris has offered you access to the meetings. Hopefully you can now relax and watch with interest.

I would remind you, however, that an open meeting does not entitle you to input on the discussions or decisions. Your practice of publishing all information (with your interpretive slant) appears to me to be an attempt to influence the decisions of elected persons. Why else would you demand access to meetings in which no decisions are made? If you simply wished to report the actions of committees, you would attend the plenary meetings (where ACSWP decisions are made), and accept the fact you are not entitled to attend subcommittee/writing team meetings.

Sorry you are so angry, but you are not an elected member of the committee, but rather an observer.

Hope that clarifies what I believe the policy provides.



Well, obviously, we need an Open Meeting Policy that is tamperproof--or maybe Tammenproof. We need a policy that makes clear that papers are open documents once they get discussed in an open meeting; that when the larger group breaks out into committees, the committee meetings are intended to be open, too (as they are at General Assembly, for instance); and that when the Office of General Assembly rules on the policy, the ruling must err toward opening rather than closing meetings.

Mark Tammen has twice stated that if the Open Meeting Policy intends such provisions, then General Assembly can write them into the policy. Apparently General Assembly needs to do exactly that.

Are there any commissioners out there who are game for preserving open meetings from tampering?

Tomorrow I’ll copy an extended reply that I sent Tammen, hoping (in vain, I must add) to convince him to return to the meaning and intent of open meetings and our denominational policy.


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