Amendment to board restructuring bylaw passes in Mini-Assembly

A vocal group of delegates to the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly met in a Mini-Assembly Thursday afternoon to discuss a proposed bylaw amendment that would shrink the size of the UUA board to 14 people from the current 26 (PDF; pages 22-28 in the Business Agenda).

Delegates spoke both for and against the amendment, which would also end the election of trustees by district. People speaking in favor of the amendment got several rounds of hearty applause.

Several amendments were offered to the proposal, but just one passed. The amendment, offered by delegate Phil Reed of Cleveland, Ohio, was added to section 9.4 (see page 25), creating a new paragraph in the section of the bylaw regarding nomination by the Nominating Committee.

The amendment states: “Prior to the opening of the General Assembly at which an election is held, the Nominating Committee may withdraw any of its submitted nominees; this requires a three-fourths vote of the entire Nominating Committee at  a meeting at which not less than three-fourths of the entire Nominating Committee is present and the opinion of the Nominating Committee is that the nominee is incapacitated, unable to carry out the duties of the office, or that such removal is in the best interest of the association.

Reed called it the “Congressman Weiner amendment,” in reference to U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner, who resigned from Congress earlier this month in the wake of a scandal. (Weiner sent revealing photos of himself over his Twitter account, and when the photos came to public light, he initially claimed his account had been hacked.) Reed says the amendment allows the Nominating Committee to remove a candidate if, after a person has been nominated, but before the election at GA, the candidate “turns out to be an embarrassment.”

The amendment generated little debate, but the proposed bylaw to shrink the board did.

The Rev. Susan Ritchie, trustee from the Ohio Meadville District, presented the bylaw amendment to the Mini-Assembly on behalf of the Board of Trustees. The 26-member board is too large to be effective, she said. And though it does provide geographic diversity, it provides minimal representation for young adults, youth, people of color, and other historically marginalized voices. “We are asking for a new, more diverse, efficient, and intentionally democratic board,” she said.

Questions from the delegates revealed anxiety that without trustees elected from each district, there would be a loss of geographic diversity. Ritchie answered that the proposed bylaw amendment makes the strongest possible recommendation that geographical diversity be taken into account by the Nominating Committee as it selects candidates. “The problem with electing by geography in the district process is that it tends to send up people of similar backgrounds,” said Ritchie. She said that it is possible to have a smaller board while also having geographical diversity and other diversities in the mix.

People speaking against the amendment raised concerns that it would disenfranchise both districts and congregations. And the Rev. James Hobart, minister emeritus of First Unitarian Society in Denver, Colo., who also serves on the UUA Nominating Committee, said that the proposed bylaw puts too much power in the nine members of the Nominating Committee. Others spoke out saying that a 26-member board was not cumbersome, and that a better way to shrink the board would be to retain district representation, but consolidate more districts.

Speaking in favor of the bylaw was Jim Key, president of the Southeast District and a member of the UU Fellowship of Beaufort, S.C. “We support shrinking the board,” he said. “I work in the area of governance, and all the literature demonstrates that organizations meet their goals with smaller more proactive and agile boards.”

Pat Emery, a delegate from Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colo., said that she feels satisfied that the question of geographic diversity will be taken care of. “I know most of our congregations rely on a nominating committee, and I don’t think it’s antidemocratic,” she said.

The General Assembly is scheduled to vote on the bylaw amendment to reduce the size of the board during Plenary V, on Saturday afternoon.

It will also vote on a related bylaw that will change the terms for people serving on the Nominating Committee. The bylaw amendment would modify the term of persons serving on that committee from one six-year term to two three-year terms.

Ritchie explained that that bylaw amendment reflects the board’s understanding that it was giving more power to the nominating committee and that it would benefit from a steady rotation of members. In addition, she said, the Nominating Committee also needs to be balanced for diversity. “It seems quite possible people would need to come and go to achieve the right balance of diversity,” Richie said.

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