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Closed meeting policy changed as GAC considers budget, staff issues

LOUISVILLE — The General Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has changed its policy regarding closed meetings to allow it to exclude “corresponding members” from such discussions.

One impact of that is that members of advisory and advocacy committees involving social justice issues can be excluded from closed meetings at which budgets and staff reductions are discussed. That change provoked protests from the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, and the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.

“Budgets are justice statements,” said Bill Gray of the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, arguing that the General Assembly has given these groups the responsibility of holding the PC(USA) accountable on these issues.

But that view did not prevail, in a series of votes on proposed amendments. So under the new policy the council adopted March 27, corresponding members would be excluded from the meetings unless the council invites them to participate in the proceedings — as it did later that same day, in discussions on the layoffs for the PC(USA)’s national staff resulting from a nearly $10 million shortfall in the 2009 budget.

Council vice-chair Michael Kruse of Kansas City said he understands that the new policy may feel like exclusion to some, “but there are other considerations involved. … The intent is not to exclude,” but to give the council a tool to use if it needs to have discussions on sensitive matters.

There could be the potential “where an issue emerges where we are in conflict, possibly even legal conflict,” and without the policy change the council would not be able to exclude from the discussion the party involved in the conflict, “if they have the right to be at every meeting,” Kruse said.

The council’s discussion did not include the differences it has had with the Presbyterian Foundation over investments; they bubbled over very publicly last year and are creating currents of tension. A Foundation representative also is among the 14 corresponding members of the council, which means that if the General Assembly Council and the Foundation got into a legal dispute, the Foundation representative now could be excluded from a council’s closed-door discussion.

In a brief interview, Kruse said “this is not targeted at the Foundation,” but is an effort to correct “an overreaction” from two years ago, when the council adopted the policy allowing corresponding members to stay in closed-door discussions.

The council also voted to postpone consideration of changes involving its policy for terminating employees until its meeting in September.

“This looks to me like a very serious rewriting of the policy,” said Gloria Albrecht of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, saying she wanted the council to have more time to consider the changes being proposed before voting.

Roger Gench, a council member from Washington, D.C., made the motion to postpone the vote on the policy, saying he was concerned about language allowing same-day termination of employees, and whether such on-the-spot firings align with “Christian values.”

How much actually has changed in the policy — what’s new in the termination policy and what already was there, or what the policy ought to be — likely will come back up for discussion when the council meets in Louisville Sept. 22-25.