Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Wrong on all counts: open meetings, free press, personal motivation

This is part 3 of a series on the Presbyterian Church’s endangered Open Meeting Policy (see part 1 and part 2). Yesterday, Mark Tammen had written me, stripping my basic right to an open meeting and impugning my motivations. Until that point, I was simply determined that the Open Meeting Policy not be obscured, especially by inconsistent decrees that always seemed to provide for more closings. But the fallacies and insinuations in the letter by Tammen demanded a thorough debunking.

Tammen's line of thought demeaned the role of church members, betrayed an elitist bias, and set the stage for further erosion of our sunshine policy. See what you think about this as you read my response:


I believe you are overstepping your bounds (evidenced in what you wrote below), and I write to protest it. I write at length to explain fully, not out of anger. The gist is this: You have done much to hinder my ability to attend and cover open meetings in the Presbyterian Church, and you have weakened our policy as a whole.

You hold a position of responsibility to the entire church, which expects you to uphold the plain and obvious intent of open meetings, something you appear increasingly loath to do. If you are upset with me and are thus working to keep me out of open meetings, please just say so in so many words. If you are not so working, then what are you attempting to accomplish in the interchange below?

In your capacity as an officer of the church, it is definitely not your place to be crudely speculative about my intentions, or to strategically interject yourself between me (as I seek what the policy spells out so generously) and any entity of the church (which has a basic responsibility to conduct its business in a manner of openness and vulnerability to scrutiny), so that my rights and the church’s rights are abridged.

Again, I must say, REREAD the policy. And please read it without a filter that asks "How much can we who control the mechanisms manage to keep secret?" but rather with the understanding that an Open Meeting Policy is for the very intention of opening up meetings to public scrutiny, not finding ways to close them off.

You have earlier agreed that the policy's language is “very expansive.” Yet, you have also somehow managed to consider the policy merely “aspirational.” It is as if you are saying, "Well, yes. I know we have great policies, but they are SO tedious to try to actually uphold, so we'll just agree to wink at them and work out methods to allow deviations." Such an attitude is most troublesome!

If I may remind you, the language of the policy gives what is termed a "basic RIGHT" to church members: "Church members have a basic right to know about the work done and the decisions made by entities within the church." ACSWP is an "entity within the church," and I am a "church member." Thus, as a church member, I have the basic right not only to observe meetings where decisions are being made, but also "to know about the work done." Notice the two aspects mentioned: "work done" and "decisions made." It does not fit at all with the meaning of the policy for you to strangely reason that only "decisions made" meetings must be open to observers.

To get such a crabbed reading in your note below, you have to conveniently ignore all the other language of the policy about "a spirit of openness and trust" and "a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny," and how "OPEN meetings SHALL be the norm." Why the hard work to shelter some parts of open meetings from the application of a very open policy? What drives such a spirit contrary to the very meaning of the policy? Why serve as an enabler for a committee hooked on secrecy, contrary to our policy?

Further, the language spells out a "basic RESPONSIBILITY" for church leaders, such as yourself and those leading ACSWP: "Church leaders have a basic responsibility to honor that right [of members like me to observe open meetings] by conducting their business with a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny." Groups like ACSWP and leaders such as Chris Iosso have a definite responsibility to openness and scrutiny, not some right to closure or "confidentiality."

ACSWP has no "right" to simply declare their material confidential. Nor can they merely label work groups considering part of their business "writing groups," simply to exploit your manufactured reason not to allow church members their basic right to observe the "work done."

The "committees" that I argued to be able to observe at the last ACSWP meeting were not writing groups, as you and I envisioned them in the long phone conversation in January. A writing group is a few people who labor to come up with a draft to give to ACSWP when it meets. Then, when a writing group delivers its draft to ACSWP, part of the way ACSWP deals with the drafts in its meetings is in work groups, which make preliminary decisions and then report to the full ACSWP, which makes final decisions.

These work groups I laboriously got to observe in January were just like committees of General Assembly. They dealt in depth with part of the business that the whole ACSWP would deal with later. They were a "work group" related to an entity--which is exactly one of the kinds of meetings that the Open Meeting Policy pertains to (see section #2).

Those work groups WERE making decisions, by the way. They were making recommendations, amending portions of papers, determining strengths and deficiencies--exactly, again, the kind of things that a GA committee does. Then their work went to the whole ACSWP in its plenary session. According to the Open Meeting Policy, members of the church belong in such meetings as observers, in direct contradiction to your comments below.

Such work group meetings must be open. There is no good reason why they would need to be closed--not if one actually BELIEVES what the Open Meeting Policy says, that "the work of the church is strengthened when it is done in a spirit of openness and trust."

So far, my letter has been about open meetings as a whole. In addition, I want to protest the personal inferences you load into your note below. I do not believe it is your job to disparage my motives and work, or to lecture me as if I were a miscreant. That comes across as misuse of power. In particular:

1) You infer that I have endeavored to have "input on the discussions or decisions." I have not commented or spoken in meetings I observe. I have not insinuated myself into the role of a participant. I have not tried to vote, as if I could! You simply cannot substantiate such an unfounded inference.

2) You speak of my "practice of publishing all information (with your interpretive slant)." Why shouldn’t “all information” be published? What is there to hide? Which part is the church not allowed to know about? And exactly what role ought an independent commentator take, other than publishing information and interpretation about the meeting? Would you require that I write nothing about meetings? Or should I write only what YOU tell me to write, or what someone else would LIKE me to write? Must any writing be "just the facts" with no interpretation about the meaning of what is going on, no background, no commentary? Am I not allowed an opinion and the freedom to express it? Is muzzling free speech and the press what our Open Meeting Policy intends?

3) You accuse me of "an attempt to influence the decisions of elected persons." Yes. Exactly. And what could possibly be wrong with my using logic, reason, information, and persuasion to, yes, "influence the decisions of elected persons"? Are they meant to be kept in a hermetically sealed world in which no one and nothing influences them? Are they not already influenced by world events, the reading they do, the number of staff persons at the meetings, their past experience, their world view, their emotions, the other elected persons, their friends, a watching church, and who knows what else? But I am supposed to have no influence on them through the things I write, which, by the way, they can read or not, as they see fit? Of course I'd like to influence them to do what is right and prudent, but the only influence I can possibly have is through information they can choose to take or leave. There is absolutely nothing untoward about that!

If what I write may cause church members to influence them, too, all the better. In "Forming Social Policy," which, one would hope, isn’t merely "aspirational," there is a REQUIREMENT that policy statements must have "a plan indicating the manner in which THE WHOLE CHURCH CAN PARTICIPATE (advise, offer input, etc.)" in deliberations. We need to remember over and over that this work is NOT the business solely of ACSWP. It is the business of the whole church, a church that needs to be welcomed and not locked out or intimidated into silence.

4) You employ a loaded verb. You ask me, "Why else would you DEMAND access to meetings in which no decisions are made?" First, no one should ever have to DEMAND what is his or her "basic right," granted by church policy! You write as if ACSWP has a basic right to secrecy and I have a basic responsibility to stay away. Nonsense! Would you ask a woman pastor "Why else would you DEMAND ordination?" Would you ask a Korean elder, "Why do you DEMAND to be at presbytery?"

I should be graciously GRANTED access to an open meeting, and YOU should be upholding the Open Meeting Policy by demanding my full access, if anyone is forced to demand it.

Second, meetings in which "no decisions are made" are also open meetings, in which we church members have the "basic right to know about the work done." So much is learned in HOW business is transacted. What was the overall mood of the participants? Where were the sticking points? What seemed to be driving the members? Are there different factions, or is the group united?

It would be especially interesting to the church to know where the ACSWP sees itself headed in the next months after General Assembly. Are any changes coming, perhaps? Is ACSWP having second thoughts about some recent missteps it has taken? Members may not be giving final approval to any papers, but what they are talking about is most newsworthy. I cannot understand how you could fail to see that "the work done" is important, not just "the decisions made."

5) You write about my supposed need to "accept the fact you are not entitled to attend subcommittee/writing team meetings." Exactly where does an Open Meeting Policy that declares that “open meetings shall be the norm” state or even imply such a non-entitlement?

And what are such “subcommittee/writing team meetings”? Certainly not the work groups at an overall meeting of the ACSWP, when ACSWP members divide into sections to consider various business, even business in the conceptual stage. That is part of "the work done" in an open meeting, and that is what I sought and properly gained access to in January. Those smaller groups were considering the writing that had been done over the months by actual "subcommittee/writing teams." The work groups at the ACSWP meeting were quite independent of such actual writing teams.

Exclusion from the work groups at the ACSWP meetings is not allowed by the Open Meeting Policy, which DOES include "work groups" by name as open meetings. Are you prepared to tell all the observers at General Assembly that they cannot observe GA committees? Those committees do exactly the kind of work for GA that the ACSWP subcommittees did for ACSWP in January. They are completely analogous.

Are you trying to say that you have found in a very open Open Meeting Policy a way to interject closed meetings, foreign to the intent of the policy, by naming something a "writing team"? A “writing team” is a very specific group tasked with coming up with a policy draft (see 2.b. in "Forming Social Policy") and is in no way merely a committee or work group composed of ACSWP members in general.

Why, again, the great desire to create a method to close off a part of a meeting through a manufactured technicality, when the Open Meeting Policy is so grandly clear about openness and its benefits? Why do you work so assiduously to reverse the intent of the policy--which would say that I am entitled to attend the subcommittee/work groups that meet as part of the overall ACSWP meeting?

6) You try to ascribe petty motives on my part: "Sorry that you are so angry..." It is rather convenient to be able to write off logic and sensibility as anger. By being simply dismissive, you escape having to deal with the substance of my reasoning about open meetings. I would ask you to remember your particular responsibility as a Christian leader--which doesn't include permission for ad hominem statements.

7) You think I need to be told the obvious. "You are not an elected member of the committee, but rather an observer," you remind me. Exactly. That is all I have asked to be allowed to do--to observe. But I cannot observe that which I cannot attend. I cannot read that which is denied that I see.

You have obviously made it quite clear that ACSWP can bar me from whatever it decides to label a "subcommittee/writing team," making it impossible for me to be an observer of what our General Assembly deemed an open meeting of a work group. You previously gave tacit permission for ACSWP to withhold documents. Now you speak positively of ACSWP's penchant to deem documents "confidential," which also makes a mockery of the "open" in open meetings and "a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny."

It feels from this vantage point as if, perhaps out of pique toward me, you have decided to make sure that my efforts to be an observer at ACSWP meetings are frustrated at every turn. I sadly don't understand the thought process that goes into your decisions. But I do request that you revise your decisions, which appear flawed in multiple ways.


Jim Berkley


Presbyterian Church open meetings--let’s not let them be closed off, either by degrees or decrees.


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