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Parliamentary Procedure in Perspective.

A practical look at when to use Roberts Rules--and when to break them.

The most important statement in Robert's Rules of Order has nothing to do with motions or other aspects of parliamentary procedure. Rather, it is this simple piece of advice: "No rules can take the place of tact and common sense on the part of the chairman.

The goal of parliamentary procedure is not adherence to a set of rules. The goal is to facilitate the work of the board of directors so that everyone is heard and the group accomplishes its business in a timely, orderly way. If you achieve this, it likely won't matter if you follow the varied rules of parliamentary law to the letter.

Why does parliamentary procedure matter?

Parliamentary procedure is simply the rules by which a meeting is run. There is a "common law" of parliamentary procedure, that is, widely accepted principles that apply generally in all meetings. But most associations cite a particular set of rules as controlling, such as Robert's Rules of Order. Robert's is more than 700 pages long and can be quite dense. Two groups, the National Association of Parliamentarians in Independence, Missouri, and the American Institute of Parliamentarians in Wilmington, Delaware, sell abbreviated guides that are more user-friendly. (The newly revised Robert's Rules of Order (10th edition) is now available.)

Parliamentary procedure is important because it is a proven means to make meetings operate effectively and smoothly. Similarly, it embraces the concept of majority rule while respecting the right of the minority to make its views known. In this way, parliamentary procedure promotes fairness and openness, which contributes to a positive atmosphere within which you can make important decisions.

Finally, there is a legal aspect to parliamentary procedure. For courts, process matters. If members have not been treated fairly or if circumstances suggest trickery or heavy-handedness, a court could intervene.

The fundamentals

Few associations adhere strictly to parliamentary rules in every respect. Most use some modified form, often incorporating unique customs that the association has developed across time. Still, you should follow some basic rules:

1. Every meeting must have a written agenda.

2. Adhere to your agenda, taking items out of sequence only when necessary.

3. You must have a quorum present (typically more than one half of the board members).

4. Formal board action must be pursuant to a motion.

5. Permit everyone who wishes to speak about a matter to do so.

6. Members may speak only when recognized by the chair.

7. The chair should remain impartial, at least in terms of process, and vote only if it would affect the outcome (e.g., break a tie) or if there is a secret ballot.

8. Your board must always maintain decorum.

9. Always keep written minutes.

The value of flexibility

As stated earlier, parliamentary procedure should make the process of decision making easier, not serve as an obstacle. As a result, your board needs to be somewhat flexible. For example, strictly speaking, a motion is necessary to bring a matter before a board or committee; without a motion no discussion is supposed to occur on that issue. But from a practical standpoint, it is often helpful to have open discussion before a formal motion is developed, and generally this should be allowed.

Another familiar concept is the "friendly amendment." Under this approach, when someone puts forth a motion to amend, the people who made and seconded the original main motion can choose to accept the amendment, rather than going through a full debate and vote on the motion to amend.

Straw polls can be useful as well. These are informal votes to assess the mood or will of the board so that you can better direct the discussion and even the meeting as a whole. Such polls are not binding but can provide useful guidance.

Those who introduce, and second, a motion may be permitted to withdraw the motion if the discussion has revealed little support, or has convinced the motion-makers that a vote is not appropriate.

Finally, don't let the board become overly concerned with terminology. Many board members may not know the specific parliamentary name for what they wish to do and may he unaware of the proper protocol. But this does not mean their ideas lack merit. Others, especially the chair, should help members rather than simply dismiss their efforts as "out of order" or contrary to Robert's Rules.

A timely bonus

Parliamentary procedure is vitally important. Properly used, it can result in productive, non-combative meetings about which the members feel satisfied that they were given the opportunity to fully participate and contribute. Another benefit: It also helps you end your meetings on time.

Hugh K Webster is a partner in the law firm of Webster, Chamberlain & Bean, Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Society of Association Executives
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Author:WEBSTER, HUGH K.
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Words:801
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