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April 22, 2008: The Rules Against Reality

The announcement that Ed Koster is standing for election as Stated Clerk (Presbyweb, April 21, 2008) gives me an opportunity to review the election procedure. As I mentioned yesterday, I think the election of the Stated Clerk is among the most important things the General Assembly will do.

I do not have any vested interest in the election of Gradye Parsons, Ed Koster, or anyone else who will be standing for election. I do, however, have some strong feelings about the process. It needs to change. Commissioners must have a more substantive say in the decision. The Stated Clerk is a four-year position. It is an election for the chief constitutional officer of the whole denomination; specifically, a denomination deep in the throws of a constitutional crisis. Thus, the limited process --

1) a five-minute speech on Sunday,
2) a random "availability" time mid-week,
3) materials controlled by the Office of General Assembly, and
4) a brief time the last full day of the Assembly for the election

-- is an absurd way to elect a person to such a high-profile position; that is, unless the goal is to control the process.

To illustrate how tightly controlling the rules are written, it could be argued that yesterday's announcement on Presbyweb was itself a violation; specifically Standing Rule H.2.b.3(m), "The candidates may not distribute any other materials, print or electronic, including flyers, buttons, tokens or other objects that would denote a campaign for the office of Stated Clerk." A press report from his advisors supporting his nomination could denote a campaign. I do not think it should be interpreted that way and I hope it will not be; however, I am not sure how the rules -- as written -- will be interpreted by the Stated Clerk Nominating Committee.

Yes, that's right, Standing Rule H.2.b.3(p) "Any questions concerning interpretation of the election process outlined in H.2.b. shall be determined by the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee." The committee that makes the nomination also has the authority to interpret the rules regarding candidates who challenge their nomination. Does anyone else see the inherent conflict of interest? (If not, let me spell it out: the Stated Clerk Nominating Committee interprets the rules. They would like their nominee elected. They could find that Ed Koster violated Standing Rule H.2.b.3 (m) because his advisors produced this press release with his knowledge. They could impose some sort of sanction -- say, disqualify him? Whether they will is a different question; that they could is a huge problem in the current rules.)

Some of the rules are new since the last Stated Clerk election in 2004. On the upside, there is now a requirement that all applicants for the position of Stated Clerk must be interviewed by the Stated Clerk Nominating Committee (Standing Rule H.2.b.3.(j)). In 2004, though an applicant, I was not interviewed.

On the downside, the limits on what the candidates may do are Orwellian.

I know why the changes were made. There was concern about negative campaigning. During the Q&A time of the election in 2004, I was the first to respond to a question from the floor about commissioners' mailboxes being stuffed with pieces that were apparently highly critical of Stated Clerk Kirkpatrick. My answer was (and is) that I do not know who was responsible for the examples cited. My "campaign" focused on my qualifications, my vision for where the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should go, and how that was different than the direction we were headed. I brought my best for the Assembly's consideration. The Assembly was presented with a choice. It made a choice. It selected Stated Clerk Kirkpatrick.

I am not a fan of, in favor of, do not (and did not) participate in, and do not condone personal attacks on individuals. Additionally, pragmatically, the negative approach does not work and the voters resented it. That should be sufficient to deter candidates from engaging in it.

Regardless, just because negative campaigning is distasteful does not justify legislating against all outside communication. The issues in the Stated Clerk election are not sound-byte material. The Assembly is not well-served by these rules. It is astounding a denomination so aggressive and anxious to open up voting rights to the American public would be so authoritarian in limiting the process for its own elections.

What could be done? I am in favor of opening up the conversation about the direction the denomination is headed. The Stated Clerk election is an important part of that conversation. And, if the goal is to open up the process to allow a full discernment by the Assembly, there are a few things that could be done.

1. The General Assembly could vote to suspend Standing Rule H.2.b.3.(m) (see above), (n), and (o) which are:

(n) Other organizations supporting the candidacy of a particular candidate may not distribute materials electronically, through the mail, or at the General Assembly with the knowledge, support, or permission of that candidate. Should a candidate discover that an organization is advocating or campaigning for him or her, it is expected that the candidate will request that organization to cease its activities. The same expectation will be true of organizations that are critical of a particular candidate for Stated Clerk.

(o) Each candidate will be provided a place to meet and talk with commissioners and advisory delegates two days before the election. Only information provided by the Office of the General Assembly may be distributed in those rooms. Other materials, apart from that packet, are not permitted. Each candidate for Stated Clerk will be allowed to post the times when he/she will be available for conversation in that room.

2. The General Assembly could vote to create a commissioner's committee to interview and evaluate each of the candidates. There are quite a few issues that could be discussed, some of which were identified here, here, and here (when I wrote about this in September, 2007). This used to be the way it was done. Commissioners would be selected from the other committees and tasked with the one specific item of business: to interview the candidates and make recommendation to the plenary.

Let me give you an example of one of the issues that needs to be discussed and is likely to NOT be a part of the materials provided by the Office of the General Assembly. This past Fall, the OGA's Mark Tammen met with a group of us from San Diego Presbytery, consulting our "Way Forward Work Group." During the conversation the question arose about the financial viability of middle governing bodies. Mark's comment (and I agree) was the current system is fiscally unsustainable. There are three options:

1) we are going to have to expand the geography of presbyteries (essentially merging some together), diminishing the scope of their responsibilities;

2) we are going to have to go to many, many smaller presbyteries each with greater responsibilities; or

3) we are going to have to have a different model of connection (something along the lines of the Beaver-Butler proposals).

The Stated Clerk is going to be a pivotal player in determining which option is pursued. Under the current rules, a substantive discussion of those options is not realistically possible.

Let me give you a second example. The proposed new Form of Government would have a profound impact on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Because of the role of the Stated Clerk in interpreting the Constitution and maintaining its integrity, it would be inappropriate to NOT have a long conversation with candidates about their understanding of the meaning and application of the changes being proposed. Yet the current rules do not permit such a public conversation.

...not that I have an opinion about any of this. Sheesh. So much for analysis fatigue. (If someone finds my vented spleen, could you send it back?)