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Robert's rules at work: using parliamentary procedure to conduct effective meetings.

"I don't stay to the end of civic meetings at Town Hall because they always end up in an argument about who has the floor and what motion they're voting on. Someone usually moves to table the motion on the floor, and someone else gets up to say you can't move to table a motion because there's already a motion on the floor. That's when I get lost and leave."

- Andy Rooney

If the truth were told, this is the way most of us feel about parliamentary procedure; yet at the very least, parliamentary procedure is a necessary evil for orderly board, committee, and other meetings. Usually when someone starts talking to us about parliamentary procedure either our eyes glaze over or we run out of the room yelling obscenities about someone named Robert.

Wouldn't it be great if we could all agree on everything all the time so that we didn't have to resort to Robert's Rules of Order, which few seem to understand and fewer like. But that's not the world we live in. General Robert said: "Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there's the least amount of liberty."

A better understanding

What are we to do? We volunteer leaders and association executives must gain a better understanding and command of these very important tools. And they are indeed tools - not crutches or weapons. Parliamentary procedures are designed to 1) preserve order; 2) expedite business; and 3) protect rights. How can we argue with that?

The main responsibility of the presiding officer is to guard against

* abuse of the procedures (you know, the member who knows or thinks he or she knows more than anyone else and sets out to prove it) and

* procedural bog-down (when you get so wrapped up and bogged down in procedures that you forget what you were trying to do).

We must also realize and make clear that an effective meeting is a joint responsibility of the presiding officer and the participants.

We all have and use, to some extent, the charts of motions and other aids (see sidebar, "Read All About It"), but in our careers as association executives and volunteers we have learned many incorrect procedures and picked up mistaken assumptions about the right way to conduct business. The following exercise attempts to explore a few of those areas.

These "newfound" truths will, I hope, help you realize that these terrible things called parliamentary procedures are really not that bad at all, and are really based on common sense and fairness.

The questions

Please answer the following questions True or False (try to resist the temptation to look at the answers).

T F 1. All committee actions must be approved by either the executive committee or the board of directors.

T F 2. Once a quorum is established, business can be conducted regardless of the number of members who remain at the meeting.

T F 3. Minutes and financial statements require a motion for approval.

T F 4. After a motion has been seconded, the next proper step is to discuss the motion.

T F 5. The presiding officer can only vote to break a tie.

T F 6. In a meeting, the parliamentary decisions and rulings of the presiding officer are final.

T F 7. Parliamentary procedures do not vary regardless of the size or purpose of the group.

T F 8. "Calling for the "question" ends debate and requires an immediate vote on the preceding motion.

T F 9. A motion to "table" is the best way to kill a pending motion.

T F 10. Individuals have the right to speak to a motion as many times as they wish, unless special rules are adopted.

The answers

1. False. Only those actions affecting policy or unbudgeted funds need approval. Empower your committees and other groups. Make sure they know their charge, and let them go - in other words, stop micromanaging.

2. False. When the number needed for a quorum is no longer present, the formal business of the group must stop.

3. False. For minutes, the chair asks, "Are there any corrections to the minutes?" Hearing none, they stand approved as mailed or presented. Of course, if there are corrections without objections, those changes are made. If corrections are requested and someone objects, then a motion must be made and handled accordingly. The only financial report that requires approval is the annual audit. All other financial reports are informational only and require no action to be taken.

4. False. The next step is for the chair to repeat the motion to make sure everyone understands it before discussion begins. After discussion, the chair needs to repeat the motion again before voting to make sure everyone understands what he or she is voting on. After the vote, the chair needs to state the results.

5. False. The presiding officer can vote 1) to break a tie; 2) to make a tie (a tie vote fails); and 3) on secret ballots.

6. False. The members (the "body") always have final say. The rulings of the presiding officer can be clarified by asking for a "point of information," more formally by calling for a "point of order," and most formally by making a motion to "appeal the decision of the chair," which requires a vote of the body.

7. False. Parliamentary procedures become increasingly important when a committee is formal in nature or when that committee has legal responsibility for the organization. Sometimes we can curtail the creativity and energy of groups by requiring their adherence to strict rules of order. Some procedures and rules are always necessary, but it's best to use prudent judgment in deciding how far to go.

8. False. If participants yell out "question" or "call for the question," that just means they are tired of talking and want to vote. They alone cannot stop debate or tell the body what to do. The proper motion is to "move the previous question," which requires a second and a two-thirds vote (a two-thirds vote is always required when a right is being taken away). This motion, if passed, ends debate and puts the previous question to vote.

9. False. Use the motion to "table" only to set a motion on the floor temporarily aside so something more important can be considered. The proper way to kill a motion is to move to "postpone indefinitely." If passed, this motion only prohibits the same motion from being made at the same meeting. The same motion can be made again by someone at the next meeting. You can never actually "kill" a motion.

10. False. Generally, parliamentary procedures allow for the same individual to speak only once and for no more than 10 minutes, until everyone who wishes to speak to the motion has had an opportunity to do so. Then the individual max, speak a second time for no more than 10 minutes. The body can adopt special rules for debate.

The presiding officer's ability to move the agenda in an orderly fashion is critical to effective, efficient, successful meetings. Using parliamentary procedures as one of the many tools in your arsenal will help ensure maximum benefits in minimum time. A little knowledge about parliamentary procedure, coupled with good judgment, goes a long way.

Read All About It

* Modern Parliamentary Procedure, by Ray E. Keesey: Models for more efficient democratic action modernize parliamentary terminology, eliminate superfluous motions, and provide valuable ideas for preventing and handling disruptions. The book (product AMR210630) is available at $14.95 plus shipping through the American Society of Association Executives Bookstore. Phone: (202) 371-0940; fax: (202) 371-8315; or e-mail: Add 5.75 percent sales tax for books shipped to Washington, D.C., addresses.

* Motions charts can be found in Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, 1990 edition.

William E. Cozart, CAE, a certified meetings professional and parliamentarian, is executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Oregon Association of Realtors, Salem. His e-mail address is
COPYRIGHT 1998 American Society of Association Executives
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Title Annotation:Board Primer
Author:Cozart, William E.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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