At a couple of recent meetings, the City Council has plodded through a set of summary procedural rules that we’ve spent a great deal of money having our city attorney draft. This has been a pointless exercise for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we’re not learning anything about the very point of parliamentary procedure (to enable the majority to make decisions, while protecting the rights of the minority to participate) nor the theory supporting procedural motions and their standard characteristics.
I argue that a better course would be to adopt Robert’s Rules of Order, and arrange for training for the mayor and council on how to work within that standard framework.
Why Robert’s Rules of Order?
It’s the Standard
Adopting Robert’s Rules of Order is, in fact, the norm for local governments. For example, the following nearby city governing bodies have adopted Robert:
By some estimates, ninety percent of the voluntary associations in our country use Robert.
Moreover, if a governing body doesn’t adopt any rules at all, the common law still requires the body to follow general parliamentary law. See Paul McClintock in the MRSC article “Meeting Tips and Myths.”
Robert’s Rules includes a set of modified rules for small boards, i.e. groups of less than 12. In Robert’s Rules In Brief, see page 158. Jurassic Parliament , the meeting consultant the Association of Washington Cities has offered at recent trainings, recommends adoption of a modified set of rules for small boards. See this Jurassic Parliament Tip Sheet. I purchased a copy of this document for each city councilmember.
It’s a Complete Reference
The rules of procedure drafted by our City Attorney are far from complete. They lack an explanation of the fundamentals of parliamentary procedure, for example:
- No explanation of the four basic types of motions (see pages 126-129 of In Brief)
- No explanation of how motions are presented (page 20)
- No explanation of how debate is structured to preserve decorum (page 31)
- No explanation of how to make amendments (page 39)
- No information on the precedence of motions (page 105)
- No explanation of the role of the chair (see below)
- No explanation of the notion of “suspending the rules” (see efficiency, below)
It’s not necessary or wise to spend time and dollars drafting new versions of established rules. Instead, we should just adopt Robert’s Rules as the baseline.
It Establishes the Role of the Chair
The chair’s role as moderator of the meeting is to impartially run the meeting according to its rules—not to participate in the debate by offering rebuttal after each member’s remarks. In Robert’s Rules In Brief, see page 69. The set of rules drafted by our City Attorney omit this important principle.
Each of the examples above are important to have in writing in order for group to exercise its will. In the absence of rules, the chair becomes a dictator by necessity. That’s not democracy.
It Promotes Efficiency
Robert includes easy methods to move the meeting along while preserving the rights of the body to govern itself. Today, the mayor makes many decisions about the course of the meeting on his own, effectively usurping the right of the council to govern its own affairs. Under Robert, these decisions require approval of the members—but getting such approval need not be onerous. In In Brief, see page 68 for a description of “unanimous consent”—a streamlined procedure for handling matters upon which there is actual consensus.
It Defines the Role of the Council
The City Council should understand that it can do what it wants. The Council is not dependent on the mayor or staff to add items to agendas, nor is it constrained by any of the rules it has adopted or will adopt. At any time, the Council could vote by 2/3 to “suspend the rules” to do what it needs to do. See page 93 of In Brief.
How would we adopt Robert?
Both our currently-adopted and city attorney-proposed rules of procedure amount to 2-3 pages dedicated to procedures covered by Robert. We could replace all that imprecise verbiage with the following:
The rules contained in the current edition of Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised govern City Council meetings in all cases to which they are applicable and in which they are not inconsistent with state law, city ordinances, or any special rules of order the Council may adopt.
We could then adopt any special rules of order (e.g. the rules for small boards) subsequently in our revised procedures resolution.
Parliamentary Procedure Training
All of us—council, mayor, and city attorney—would plainly benefit from real training in parliamentary procedure and best practices in conducting a meeting. We don’t have to search for an expert: I’ve repeatedly suggested Ann Macfarlane, a recognized local authority on parliamentary procedure and meeting protocol. Macfarlane regularly presents at AWC meetings and writes for the Council/Commission Advisor column for the MRSC website.
Macfarlane offers a 3-4 hour interactive training through her consulting firm, Jurassic Parliament. Eric Johnson and I participated in one of her trainings at last year’s AWC Newly Elected Officials training. She presented again at the AWC Annual Meeting I attended in June:
The Oak Harbor City Council held a training with her last year, and I arranged for her to train the Skagit County Planning Commission. Each of these trainings has been fun, engaging, and extremely helpful. As you can tell, I’m a big fan. The Planning Commission and other city boards and commissions could also benefit from and participate in the training. With a little introduction, Robert is accessible to everyone and it could help correct ongoing problems with the way our City Council operates.