General Conference 2000 - May 2 - 12

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About PETS

What is PETS?

PETS is the computer database, programs and network which supports the legislative activities of the General Conference. The PETS database contains the current and historical information about every petition, committee item, calendar item and updated Disciplinary paragraph submitted to or created by the 2000 General Conference (and also the 1996 General Conference.) This includes the text of all petitions, committee items and calendar items.

PETS programs ran on 30 - 40 PCs at the Cleveland Convention Center over a TCP/IP network. Authorized users updated information about the various legislative documents on these Microsoft NT based PCs.

Various reports are written by PETS throughout the conference. One set of reports is transmitted electronically to the Daily Christian Advocate Staff for direct inclusion in the DCA. Other reports include listings of pending business delivered to the elected officials of the Legislative Committees, lists of calendar items with financial implications for the General Council on Finance and Administration, Discipline updates as they happen for the Committee on Correlation and Reference and presiding bishops, and many others.

PETS also electronically maintains a world-wide web site. The site is composed of approximately 17,500 files which give any interested party access to the legislative work of the General Conference. The entire site, was mirrored in Cleveland to allow high speed access from over 150 networked PCs at the convention center. Approximately 16,000 - 17,000 files are updated three times each day as required to accurately represent the activities of the conference.

By the time the conference was concluded, PETS electronically stored over 70,000 files representing more than 500,000 typewritten pages of information. At its peak, PETS responded to as many as 30 requests per second for information regarding legislative documents.

Some Notes on the History of PETS

Pre 1984

A single session of the General Conference can be deluged with as many as 20,000 petitions. The Discipline requires that each petition is voted on by the plenary session. Many complex rules, procedures and reports were created over the years to cope with this literal mountain of paper. Over the years, the conference process became so complex that very few individual people understood the process in its entirety.

Each petition was stamped with an incrementing rubber stamper as it was received by the Petitions Secretary. When they were all received, then lots of volunteer labor was brought in to type up petition lists (with several carbon copies). When the lists of petitions in serial order were complete, then the volunteers had to physically sort all of the petitions into order by Disciplinary paragraph and start typing up lists again. Time permitting, petitions were sorted again by title, source, and any other way that the Petitions Secretary thought might be valuable in the heat of battle during the conference session.

These typed lists were precious as gold, and only by careful checking against them could the Secretary of the General Conference, the Coordinator of the Calendar and the Petitions Secretary be sure that all petitions had been acted upon once and only once.

After the conference was over, it took as long as several months to sort all of the petitions into piles of those which were approved and those which were rejected. Piles of petitions, together with hand typed and hand written committee revisions and motions from the floor were all merged together into the next version of the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. In some quadrenia it took as long as one year to complete this process.


In 1984 John Brawn volunteered to help the Petitions Secretary, Newall Knudsen, create a computerized list of petitions. The intent was to replace the manual sorting and repetitive effort of typing lists. John provided a CPM based, Hewlett-Packard 125 PC and training for the volunteers to help them create a list in a word processor (Word-125 which was an early specialized version of WordStar.)

A primary and backup floppy disk were used for all of the petitions related to each legislative committee. When complete, these 24 floppies contained a text file per committee with a paragraph per petition with the petition serial number, the related Disciplinary paragraph number, the title and the source.

John took the files to his office at Hewlett-Packard, uploaded them to an HP3000 minicomputer and using TDP/3000 (a text and document processor) fixed up the punctuation, acronyms, and titles, sorted the list in various ways, and printed them out to a high speed laser printer. (Actually the 45 page/minute HP2680 was faster than any laser printer used by the General Conference in the 12 years since.)


A new General Conference Secretary and acting Petitions Secretary, Faith Richardson, saw value in having the information about the petitions available on-line at the conference site. Faith and John designed a simple database to track some basic information about each petition during the conference including the calendar item number and whether it was approved or rejected in final vote.

This was a significant step forward. The pre-printed list in 1984 was helpful, but it did nothing to address the pile of paper to be contended with at conference's end. The new idea of tracking each petition throughout the conference enabled considerable time to be saved both during and after the conference session. To highlight the difference in scope, John proposed the acronym PETS for PEtition Tracking System. Faith, finding two capitalized letters in a world unattractive, suggested Petition Entry and Tracking System instead.

PETS ran on two HP 150 "Touchscreen" PCs, and four HP Vectras (8 and 12 Mhz 286 based PCs.) The database was just over 1.5 Mbytes and fit compressed on one 720k, 3.5" floppy. The program was 6,000 lines long and compiled in 25 minutes. John volunteered over 300 hours of programming time to create PETS.

1988 was John's first general conference session. John finished most of the difficult work in the first week of the conference, and then worked with his father, Mel Brawn, (who was a network consultant for HP) to document the entire work flow of the general conference.

The results of this analysis, covering a 30' wall in the Secretary's office from floor to ceiling, were usually met with something between horror and disbelief. While everyone who was a part of the process acknowledged that their part of it was correct, none had any idea of the scope or complexity of the entire process.

It was clear to John by the half-way point of the 1988 General Conference that tracking petitions through the conference session only gave visibility to a small part of the entire legislative process.


Carolyn Marshal, the newly elected Secretary of the General Conference worked with John and Richard Peck, Editor of the Daily Christian Advocate, to design a simplified paperwork flow to administratively support the entire legislative process. John took the assignment one step further and defined information entities, limits of authority, approval processes and segregation of responsibilities. After this, it was a fairly simple matter to outline a series of modules which could be added to PETS to not only track but be the official repository for information about petitions, committee items and calendar items.

John had worked for the corporate internal audit department of Hewlett-Packard for three years as a computer security and network auditor. In addition to traveling 18 - 20 weeks per year auditing, John also put just over 700 volunteer hours into programming five new modules for PETS in the nine months prior to the start of the General Conference Session.

Besides the programming, John also designed a network of 24 PCs which would be used by the Secretaries' offices, legislative committees and on the floor of the plenary session to use PETS to track all of the legislative activities of the conference. When the convention center opened, it was learned that the building wiring which had been promised for use by this computer network would not be available. Six volunteers spend the first two nights of the conference working nearly all night to string nearly 10km of twisted pair data wire between all of the rooms of the convention center.

There were a few glitches in the computerization of the conference work flow, but for the most part, PETS was widely recognized as a huge step forward in the administrative work of the conference. The entire text of every petition was available on-line. For the first time, no documents had to be completely retyped because of typing errors. All intermediate versions of all documents were retained facilitating problem resolution. The name of the person making each change was recorded along with the date and time to ensure proper documentation control. Post conference work on the Discipline was completed in under two months.

This was also the first year in which PETS provided support for real-time inquiry through the United Methodist Communication's InfoServe 800 number. Response from Methodist who were not at the conference session was very positive, and the delegates voted a change into the Discipline requiring "bulletin board" access to PETS information for "all who are interested in the business of the General Conference."

The PETS network included a 33Mhz 486 server with 670 Mbytes of disk space running OS/2 LAN Manager serving 22 rented 25Mhz 386s desktop PCs and one Toshiba T2400 portable. The network protocol was LAN Manager over TCP/IP and supported remote printing to a 17ppm HP LaserJet IIIsi.

The PETS modules used at the 1992 session were composed of over 30,000 lines of programming code and compiled in two to three minutes each.


John volunteered approximately 500 hours fine tuning the existing PETS modules to include the following enhancements over the 1992 PETS modules:

  • Support for WordPerfect for Windows 6.1 as the word processor for all text changes.
  • Support for mouse control of program functions and menus.
  • Significant changes to the authorization and release of committee items.
  • Significant changes as requested by the Commission on General Conference Session in Consent Calendar logic and procedures.
  • Provide a mechanism for tracking sub-paragraphs where appropriate.
  • Electronically write the petition listing in the ADCA directly from PETS.
  • And, various bug fixes as identified in 1992.

In addition, John volunteered nearly 400 hours in the creation of two new modules. One was be used to keep a copy of the Book of Discipline up to date as changes to the discipline are voted in the plenary session. This allowed the Committee on Correlation and Editorial Revision to review and approve the changes to the Discipline as they happen. This module was also intended allow the Presiding Bishop, Parliamentary Assistant and Secretary of the General Conference to have an constantly updated hard copy of the Discipline in order to help catch inappropriate subsequent changes to paragraphs which have already been modified by vote.  

In actual fact, WordPerfect 6.1 was unable to handle complex revision marking in RTF format and had to be replaced with Microsoft Word 6.0 during the conference.  This 40 or 50 hours of programming on the fly put the on-line Discipline update activities about 3 days behind and the two heroes working on those updates were never able to catch up. 

The second new module was a World Wide Web writer. This module maintains the thousands of files at this web site which satisfy the requirements of the Discipline for electronic access to PETS information from any interested party. This module includes a mix of database to html and rtf (text) to html subprograms.

A final piece of the PETS picture at the 1996 General Conference Session was the physical network. PETS was running on three servers. One was the primary database and text storage machine. A second was a hot-standby for the primary server capable of taking over in the event the first server is lost with a maximum of 10 minutes of work lost. The third server provided web service to all of the PCs on the convention center network, and provided replication service to the official web server in Nashville. All three servers were pentium based system (90 - 125 Mhz) with 64 Mbytes each of main memory and a total disk storage capacity of 14 Gbytes (4.4 million type written pages of text.)

The convention center LAN was connected via a 64Kbit/sec ISDN line to the UMC wide area network in Nashville. The UMC wide area network was connected to a public internet service provider with 64Kbit/sec service.

The PETS source code is now well over 40,000 lines and each of the seven modules compiles in under 50 seconds.

To view 1996 PETS data on the web go to

2000 and Beyond

The complexity, scale and especially the importance of the PETS system to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, has gone far beyond the point where it makes sense to rely on one volunteer to provide all the programming, network design, web design, network support, user training, equipment setup and troubleshooting!

In 1995, John Brawn, the volunteer PETS developer, formally requested in writing to the Business Manager of the General Conference that a large, established software development company be contracted to provide enhancements, support, installation and training for the 2000 General Conference and beyond.  Unfortunately, the Business Manager didn't seem to take the request seriously, and at the time he was asked to resign, nothing had been done.

The current Conference Business Manager, Gary Bowen, has been very helpful in making things happen to adequately replace PETS.  Unfortunately he didn't come on board in time to get PETS replaced by the 2000 General Conference.  Gary and the Commission on General Conference and I reached an agreement that I would work with the conference to run the 1996 version of PETS at the 2000 conference in order to give them 4 more years to replace PETS with an industry standard, supportable application.

John had very little programming to do prior to the 2000 General Conference (less than 100 hours total) because Gary and the Commission agreed to not make any fundamental changes in the rules or operation of the General Conference.

It felt something like a time warp to set up Windows NT 3.51 on old pentium boxes along with five year old word processors and various DOS utilities in April of 2000.  How many of you remember windows without a "Start" button?

PETS ran pretty well through the 2000 conference.  Any problems with the program were dramatically overshadowed by the severe problems with the physical petitions as delivered from UMPH at the start of the conference, and the unbelievable mismatches and errors between the physical petitions and the text as printed in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate.

A systems analyst from CGI in Texas shadowed John and met with dozens of other people over a 4 day period to get a handle on PETS and on the General Conference processes that a PETS replacement will have to model.  An RFP (Request for Proposal) is due in June and a vendor will be selected by the end of 2000 to start building the PETS replacement.  John has suggested the name Legislation Tracking System (LTS) as the working name of the new software.

We are all hopeful that LTS will help us improve many parts of the conference's legislative processes.  And we are certainly looking forward to a dry run in 2003.

Copyrights and Ownership

The PETS software written by John Brawn is owned by the Commission on General Conference Session. PETS contains database, screen and file handling procedures which are copyrighted and owned by Hewlett-Packard Company. These procedures are together known as PCSoft Tools. HP reserves all rights to those procedures which were developed for internal use, and provides no support nor makes any warranty of any kind.

PETS also requires several commercially available copyrighted software programs to be installed. These include:

  • Microsoft Windows NT version 3.51
  • WordPerfect for Windows version 6.1
  • ZyIndex for Windows 5.2
  • Netscape 1.2 (32bit export version)
  • HTTPS 0.96
  • NT Advance Server 3.51 (250 user license)
  • WordScan Plus 3.0
  • The Book of Discipline for Windows 1.0
  • HoTMetaL PRO
  • MS Pascal

Many Thanks To:

I would like to thank several people for instrumental support of the PETS project.

Susan Brumbaugh: This internationally recognized web designer pulled off miracles to make the simple text output of the PETS program look and feel like a real web site.  Please look at Susan's work.  She hand crafted all of the top level web files and created the template that PETS used to create all of the programmatic web pages.  In 2000 this totaled 17,474 files!

Gary Graves: It takes a very brave person to accept the captain's position on a sinking ship!  Gary jumped in to the Petitions' Secretary's position after we had figured out that we had at least a 10% error rate in PETS data compared to physical petitions coming into the 2000 Conference.   He coordinated over 500 hours of volunteer effort in a four day period to audit 100% of the petitions against PETS data.  Only after we were half way in did we discovered the scope of the entire problem. (Over 20% total error rate when comparing PETS data, PETS text, original petitions, reference copy petitions and ADCA!)  Gary's friendly and positive leadership was the key element that kept everyone working together and literally saved the legislative process in 2000. 

Richard Street and Tom Baker:  The network and PC support staff for the 2000 General Conference took care of all the babysitting required to keep a large, temporary network of old junky PCs humming along - in spite of mains power as low as 87 volts and protestors who had told the Cleveland police that they intended to disrupt the conference activities.  If only the thieves who stole the brand new network servers the day after the conference had given us equal warning!

Robert Brawn: My brother and a much sharper programmer by far. Robert spent many long evenings and early mornings at my house making suggestions for database structure, programming structure, web page relationship, etc. Robert also has bashed away at the keyboard for hours on end a couple of times in an attempt to identify bugs. And, there was his 1984 mad dash to the airport, petition lists (still warm from the laser printer) in hand, passing an ambulance with it's lights on, and arriving at the gate just in time to hand the lists to the Petitions Secretary as the door to the airplane closed. Thanks Robert!

Joy Brawn: My wife who knows very little about the General Conference and would like to keep it that way. Joy has been very supportive of the time I've had to spend at the keyboard, the days I've been away to meetings, the late night and early morning phone calls, and the ever expanding heat generating devices in the computer room.  She constantly reminds me when my reimbursement checks haven't arrived. Joy plays the new user role, reads help messages and tries to make sense of the reports, softkeys, menus and screen colors. And through all this, she still loves me!

Brian Paulson: The best man at my wedding and the best PC database guru around. Brian has developed testing protocols and then actually followed them to prove that the file and record locking schemes actually work on a multi-host network.

Mike Cunningham: Information Systems Manager at the United Methodist Publishing House. Mike's early technical grasp of PETS, and steady assurances to his management went a long way toward relieving their stress and reducing my phone bill.

Carolyn Marshal: General Conference Secretary and good friend. Carolyn has listened patiently and acted promptly to every request I have made for information, help, and consensus.

Vern Denny and Glenn Hinton: These guys are Mighty Morphin' Power People who at the 1992 and 1996 General Conferences transformed from publishing professionals and managers into two of the most tallented and dedicated PC support folks I have ever met. Given only an overview of PETS and a walkie-talkie, both of these guys took on every kind of off the wall problem from early morning into the middle of the night with unflappable calm and grace.

Gere Reist: Rev. (Wild Man) Reist took the bull by the horns and expanded the reach of the PETS system into the plenary activity with creativity and tenacity.

Rich Nielsen: A long time HP employee and the creater of HP's PCSoft Tools, Rich agreed to support my request for access to the tools to corporate management. When one of his utilities did the unexpected on the UMC network, Rich rewrote the tool to allow it to run the same way at General Conference as at HP. This was on personal time and was way beyond my expectations.

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