Amid the angst surrounding Article II, the November 15, 2022, announcement of a single UUA presidential candidate has sparked yet another uproar.
With only a single candidate, there will be no 2023 presidential election, as required by the bylaws. Instead, the six people on the Presidential Search Committee decided that they alone would select the next UUA president. We now have the UUA’s final abandonment of democratic norms.
UUs have sent protest letters to the Association’s President, the Board’s Co-moderators, and Board Secretary. Complaints have been filed with the Massachusetts Attorney General that oversees non-profits. The Unitarian Universalist Association is accountable to its bylaws in selecting its corporate officers.
Violation of Association’s Bylaws
The Association has specific language governing the number of presidential candidates. The applicable bylaw reads, in part, the “Presidential Search Committee shall submit no fewer than two nominations for the office of President for an election.” The operative phrase is “for an election.”
Failing to comply with this obligation, the Presidential Search Committee concluded that an “appropriate course of action was to move forward with [a single candidate] rather than reopening the application process.”
Observe that the PSC recognized that it had the option to reopen the application process.
Disregard of Directive from General Assembly Delegates
In 2021, General Assembly delegates explicitly expressed the will of the Association’s member congregations for multiple presidential candidates. Delegates rejected a UUA Board-sponsored amendment that permitted the Presidential Search Committee to submit a single name.
The General Assembly delegates also rejected the Board’s rationale for this amendment. “Allows the Presidential Search Committee to submit a single candidate, if they determine that is appropriate.”
Prescient to abandoning democratic norms, the UUA Board continued, “forced competition may be harmful.” Contradicting its forecast of “harm,” the Board offered that “additional candidates may run by petition if there are concerns about the candidate(s) proposed by the Presidential Search Committee.” This invitation was demonstratively disingenuous.
A 2023 Presidential Petition Candidate Comes Forward
In May 2022, Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof informed his Spokane congregation that he was considering a run for UUA president. A petition candidate must have sufficient visibility across the denomination to secure petition signatures from 50 certified member congregations across three regions. The governing body or a called congregational meeting must approve a congregation petition. This lengthy petition process, however, never began.
The Election Campaign Practices Committee (ECPC), whose members are appointed by the UUA Board of Trustees, immediately informed Rev. Eklof that his May announcement violated the Association’s bylaw prohibiting “active campaigning” before November 15. There are only 11 weeks from November 15 to the February 1 deadline to announce, communicate, schedule, and gather congregation petitions. This insufficient timeframe is further exacerbated by the holiday season.
The ECPC informed Rev. Eklof that he must cease all activities, or his “name will not appear on any ballot for President of the UUA in 2023.”
The ECPC left unsaid that the Association’s bylaws are utterly silent on when a person may begin the collection of presidential petitions. Instead, the ECPC referenced the sloppy bylaw language intended for internally nominated candidates. Nonetheless, the ECPC was emphatic, concluding, “Our rules on the length of campaigns are clear and not negotiable. There will not be a subsequent warning.”
Why the hostility?
2018 Presidential Search Committee Report
In April 2018, the Presidential Search Committee issued a report recommending changes to the election process. The report is long, thorough, and contains some good ideas, such as nominating three candidates instead of two. The report’s central theme is clear; the creation of an environment in which the Presidential Search Committee has maximum control over the presidential selection process. Maximum control includes excluding petition candidates.
Consistent with this strategy, the report recommended doubling congregation presidential petitions from 25 to 50. This new threshold was considered a sufficient barrier to prevent or discourage petition candidates. This recommendation was later incorporated into the Association’s bylaws.
The PSC’s real objective was the complete elimination of the petition bylaw. However, “In the absence of the will to eliminate this by-law completely, we believe that the threshold for petition candidates should be raised significantly—to at least 50 congregations.”
The Presidential Search Committee was candid. “Our committee was concerned from the beginning of our work that the potential candidates could choose not to engage with us and easily run by petition.” Control, not an open election process, was paramount.
We now come full circle. Six people have decided who will be the next UUA President.
In response to protest letters, UU leaders indicated that the Presidential Search Committee was independent and immune from oversight. The UUA President wrote, “I have no authority or oversight over the committee. There is no action that I, or the Board can or could take to change the outcome of the PSC decision.”
When pressed on accountability, the UUA President further explained that the PSC was “only accountable to the General Assembly.” It is unknown if the UUA President instructed the PSC to review the 2021 General Assembly delegate vote that required the PSC to present at least two presidential candidates.
Most astonishingly, the UUA President confessed helplessness to address this situation, stating, “The PSC is accountable to the GA (General Assembly) and the Bylaws but there is no mechanism to force them to do something and no recourse if they take a different path.” Breathtaking.
Our UUA President is not without recourse. A press release could have been issued condemning the rogue and undemocratic actions of the Presidential Search Committee.
Additionally, the sole presidential candidate could negate the Presidential Search Committee’s actions and its lack of accountability to the Association’s bylaws and the expressed will of General Assembly delegates by withdrawing.
For years, UU leadership has pressed accountability. Let’s see how committed UU leaders are to accountability.
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