Board focused on planning for 2012 General Assembly

Board focused on planning for 2012 General Assembly

Will ask to eliminate Actions of Immediate Witness; hears proposal for smaller board.
Jane Greer


Planning for the special “Justice General Assembly” to be held in Phoenix in June 2012 dominated the January 2011 meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Board of Trustees, held in Tempe, Ariz.

At its January 19–23 meeting, the board designated a GA 2012 Accountability Group, approved taking $50,000 out of the GA Reserve Fund to support Arizona UU congregations in the formation of an immigration ministry, and voted to put a bylaw amendment on the 2011 GA agenda that would eliminate Actions of Immediate Witness, a move that would reduce the amount of official business that would need to be conducted at the 2012 GA, but would also limit social justice resolutions at future General Assemblies. (Another proposed bylaw amendment would allow for the return of AIWs in a modified form in 2013.) The board also met with more than a dozen representatives from Arizona immigrant justice groups, and thirteen trustees, along with UUA President Peter Morales and UUA Moderator Gini Courter, went on a two-day tour of the U.S.-Mexican border area before the meeting’s start.

In other business, the board voted to introduce changes to the process of amending UUA bylaws and accepted a report from a task force on reducing the size of the board. In his report to the board, President Morales said the UUA has hired a consultant to help gather and analyze information about the possible purchase of a new UUA headquarters building in a Boston suburb.

Planning a ‘Justice GA’

Delegates at the 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis passed a business resolution dedicating the 2012 GA, which had already been scheduled to take place in Phoenix, to “witnessing on immigration, racial, and economic justice.” The business resolution was passed in response to Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law SB 1070, which had inspired calls for the UUA to boycott the state. The resolution states that the 2012 GA will include a minimum of official business.

The business resolution also calls upon the UUA administration to partner with Arizona UU congregations to create an Arizona immigration ministry that would work with on-the-ground groups in Arizona in preparation for the 2012 GA.

At the January meeting, the board approved the formation of a GA 2012 Accountability Group. The 15-member group, headed by the Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris, co-minister of the Mt. Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek, Calif., is charged with working with the board, the UUA administration, the GA Planning Committee, Arizona UU congregations, and external partners, particularly Arizona community groups, to fulfill the vision of a Justice GA as described in the 2010 GA business resolution. It is also charged with ensuring the participation of historically marginalized groups of people and forming alliances with local groups working on immigration issues.

The Accountability Group met with representatives from the GA Planning Committee. “We spent a lot of time talking about our vision for a social justice GA and how it would be different,” Takahashi Morris said. “We talked about how the structure and content of GA will have to be altered to fulfill the vision of the [2010 business] resolution. We also talked about the need for funding. We specifically need to fund support for congregational resources, and we need to provide money for an Arizona immigration ministry.”

GA Planning Committee chair Lynda Shannon Bluestein, in consultation with other members of the Planning Committee, proposed the use of $50,000 from the GA Reserve Fund to help the Arizona congregations create an immigration ministry. The reserve fund contains approximately $350,000, according to UUA Treasurer Tim Brennan. The board, which oversees the Planning Committee’s budget, voted to approve the expenditure.

Representatives from several immigrant justice groups talked to the board during the meeting. The organizations included Puente, Somos America, Humane Borders, Mi Familia Vota, the Arizona Interfaith Alliance for Worker Justice, and the Arizona Advocacy Network. Some of the issues they raised included the importance of approaching immigration reform legislatively, through voter registration; the value of finding local immigrant-rights groups functioning in our own communities; and the necessity of committing to work on these issues over time. “The real test is the capacity of our congregations in 2015 to be still doing this work,” said Morales.

No more AIWs?

The board approved a proposal from the GA Planning Committee to ask the 2011 General Assembly to eliminate Actions of Immediate Witness (AIWs), the social justice resolutions that GA delegates introduce by petition. If the 2011 GA approves the proposed bylaw amendments, it would remove a process that takes several days and action at two plenary sessions from the General Assembly’s business.

The AIW process would be difficult to accommodate at the 2012 “Justice GA” in Phoenix. “The AIW process is time-consuming,” said Bluestein. “We’d be spending time passing resolutions instead of doing social justice.”

According to the UUA’s bylaws (4.16b), an Action of Immediate Witness is “one concerned with a significant action, event or development the timing or specificity of which makes it inappropriate to be addressed by a UUA Statement of Conscience pursuant to the Study/Action process.” The Study/Action process requires congregations to examine issues for three years, resulting in the possible issuance of a Statement of Conscience, which becomes UUA policy.

The GA Planning Committee offered several objections to AIWs in its rationale accompanying the proposed bylaw amendment. One major objection is the speed with which AIWs are passed. “The practice of passing Actions of Immediate Witness at GA is an anomaly which calls for voting on issues for which most delegates are completely unprepared,” it reads. “How the vote goes depends largely on who is able to get to the [microphone] first and who makes the most convincing arguments. That doesn’t mean the person making the most convincing arguments has the correct facts or most complete argument that does justice to the complexities of the issue.”

The purpose of AIWs is not clear, the Planning Committee further argued. “AIWs don’t become an official position of the UUA. . . . The bylaws don’t say what is to be done with them.”

The Commission on Social Witness, which manages the AIW process—and which, like the Planning Committee, is elected by the General Assembly—had submitted a report to the board recommending that AIWs be retained with some modifications. The commission proposed reducing the maximum number of AIWs from six to three, which would require much less time in plenary sessions for debate, according to its report. The commission argued that AIWs are important social justice statements that aid in UUA lobbying efforts and guide “collaborative social justice efforts by congregations and districts. Delegates have reported AIWs raising their awareness of issues, and ministers have reported basing sermons on them.”

After the board meeting, the GA Planning Committee—in consultation with the Commission on Social Witness—agreed to put another bylaw amendment on the 2011 GA agenda that would restore AIWs as a form of social justice resolution after 2012, according to David May, head of the Commission on Social Witness. The AIW process would be modified along the lines proposed in the Commission’s report, with a maximum of three AIWs permitted. “Just proposing to eliminate [AIWs] might be a hard fight at GA,” May said. “But if they return in a modified form in 2013, delegates might see the wisdom in that.”

The proposal to eliminate AIWs in time for the 2012 GA must receive a two-thirds vote at the 2011 GA to pass.

The board passed a separate motion pledging to examine responsive resolutions, which can be made from the floor, before the 2013 GA. Responsive resolutions, according to the UUA bylaws, are resolutions “made in response to a substantive portion of a report by an officer or committee reporting to a regular General Assembly.” At the board meeting immediately after the 2010 General Assembly, Courter said that responsive resolutions and AIWs “lack accountability.”

Amending the amendment process

The board voted to place bylaw changes to Article XV on the 2011 GA agenda. Article XV, which dictates how bylaws are amended, came under scrutiny when the General Assembly voted down a proposed revision of the Association’s Principles and Purposes (Article II) in 2009. Article XV makes any changes to Article II especially difficult: Under its current language, any change in Article II must be considered by a “review and study commission” and must be approved by two consecutive GAs, the first time by a simple majority, the second time by a two-thirds majority. The Commission on Appraisal had prepared an amended version of Article II, but under the rules of Article XV, delegates were unable to propose any changes to its proposal. After rejecting the proposal, delegates passed a responsive resolution that told the board to “clarify the process and limitations of a proposal to amend a bylaw in Article II.”

UUA Financial Advisor Dan Brody presented proposed amendments to Article XV that would allow the board to amend a commission’s proposed changes to Article II. Delegates will also be able to offer amendments in a miniassembly, and will vote in plenary sessions to accept or reject them. A majority vote will be needed for preliminary approval of a change to Article II, and the amended article will be referred back to the study commission, which will prepare a revised proposal for the next General Assembly. The revised proposal can be amended at GA only if three-fourths of delegates approve an amendment that was placed on the agenda by the board, a district, or 15 congregations. Final approval will require a two-thirds vote.

Reducing the size of the board

The Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, trustee from the Ohio-Meadville District and head of the task force on board representation and restructuring, submitted a report to the board on ways of reducing the board’s size. Plans for reducing the board’s size emerged from a business resolution passed at the board’s February 2010 teleconference, in which the board pledged to transform governance at the GA, district, and board level. “Though the board is becoming more effective in its governance, its work is hobbled by its large size,” a document accompanying the resolution said. “With 24 members, the board resembles a small town meeting more than a functioning board. Additionally, the expense of such a board is unacceptable.”

The task force’s report proposes that the board consist of 13 members, with 11 at-large members, a financial advisor, and a moderator. The selection of at-large members would allow the Nominating Committee to select trustees representing different constituencies rather than have representation be based geographically with each district having its own trustee. “A majority of the board should have concrete linkages to the growing edges of Unitarian Universalism—communities and people with whom we believe Unitarian Universalism can and should expand and flourish,” the report says.

“Our highest concern is that we keep diversity,” Ritchie said during the meeting. “The Nominating Committee has to be the guarantee of that diversity.”

Four trustees would be elected each year at General Assembly. According to the proposal, trustees would serve for three-year terms with the possibility of re-election for a second three-year term.

The Nominating Committee would consist of nine members, each of whom would serve for three years, according to the report. Both the president and the moderator would choose one member to be nominated each year, and the board would choose one or two members each year. (The Nominating Committee is currently elected by the General Assembly.)

Board members raised concerns that there would be too much board involvement in choosing its own members. “I can see people’s discomfort about the board appointing the Nominating Committee that then nominates the board,” said Courter.

The board voted to accept the report and recommended that it be returned to the task force for further work. “They asked us to revise the section on the Nominating Committee,” Ritchie wrote in a later email. “In this initial draft of the report, a good portion of the Nominating Committee would be appointed by the board, where the board is appointed by the Nominating Committee. They were concerned, and we agree, that this might lead to self replicating leadership.”

Ritchie added that the committee would continue to refine its proposal. The board may act on a revised plan at its February 24, 2011, teleconference.

Visiting the border

Thirteen trustees, along with President Morales and Moderator Courter, made a special two-day trip to the U.S.-Mexican border before the board meeting to meet with undocumented migrants and deportees and to talk with advocacy groups doing immigrant justice work.

On the first day, the group went to Nogales, Ariz., where they walked across the border and visited a Jesuit-run soup kitchen, clinic, and bus station offering services to migrants and deportees. On the second day they met with representatives of Tierra y Libertad Organization and No More Deaths, an organization offering humanitarian aid to people attempting to cross the desert into the United States. No More Deaths is also a ministry of the UU Church of Tucson. Later that day the group met with a federal public defender about deportation hearings and their impact on the lives of the deportees and their families. Group members were given an opportunity to do hands-on service work in Nogales. The group also visited the UU Congregation in Amado, Ariz., and the UU Church of Tucson.

In an essay published on, Morales described the financial desperation that drove many of the people he spoke to to risk everything by attempting to cross the border. “Not a single one of these people, not one, spoke of coming to America to have a better life for himself or herself,” Morales wrote. “There was simply no personal ambition in this group. They risk death crossing the desert . . . for their families. They are risking their lives to feed children or to send money home to wives, children, and parents living in squalid poverty. Some are risking their lives to rejoin their families in the U.S.”

The Rev. Jake Morrill, trustee from the Thomas Jefferson District, said, “For me, coming to Arizona was learning to see immigration in ways deeper than as a mere legal puzzle to be solved. Our economy and our daily lives rely on a system that tramples the dignity of workers, tears apart families, and ravages the lives of young children. In this tragic system, each of us is complicit. I’m proud that Unitarian Universalism is coming to be seen as an ally to those who are suffering most. And there’s more work to do.”

President’s report

Morales reported on the spectacular success of his holiday message in both English and Spanish that was sent through social media. “I would have expected 1,000 to 2,000 hits,” he said. “Instead, there were 26,000 hits for the English one and 24,000 hits for the Spanish one. We’re going to be putting up more resources in Spanish,” he said. The number of hits was tracked by page views on Facebook.

Morales also reported that the UUA administration had hired a consultant to help collect and analyze information that will aid in decision making about possibly selling some of the UUA’s Boston property and buying a building from Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., a Boston suburb.

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