I am honored to be asked to write a column on the importance of parliamentary procedure. There is always more to learn but keeping the fundamentals in mind is always worthwhile. This article touches on the need for rules and structure.
How can people get along when each person has their own viewpoint and wishes. Should we let the loudest voices win? Should we talk until we are so tired we don’t care any longer? A better answer is parliamentary procedure.
Parliamentary procedure has a bad name. It is accused of being nitpicking and hard to learn. People think it stifles free expression — and they want to talk. So, they let everyone do whatever they want, meetings take forever, with nothing actually getting done.
Parliamentary procedure is not about the little things – it is about fundamental things. Where everyone is free to do what they like, they are free for the strong to dominate the weak. There’s a more democratic way to work with other people.
Many great minds have studied parliamentary law, named from the system of order used in Britain’s Parliament. The most famous proponent of parliamentary procedure, General Henry M. Robert wrote that:
If there were no rules or established customs to guide an assembly of persons, and if each could talk on any subject as long & as many times as he pleased, and if all could talk at the same time, it would be impossible in most cases to ascertain deliberate judgment on any particular matter. Experience has shown the necessity for rules, for a presiding officer to enforce them & preserve order, and for a recording secretary to keep a record of the business transacted by the assembly.
General Robert knew that a room full of people free to do whatever they wanted to do was inefficient and unfair. His system, Robert’s Rules of Order, first published in 1876, is the solution. Today, the parliamentary authority of more than 95% of organizations is Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised, abbreviated RONR, now in the 11th edition. (As a footnote, please remember that legislative bodies have a different parliamentary authority, with very different rules.)
A system of parliamentary procedure protects fundamental rights. Parliamentary procedure is defined as formal rules governing the method of procedure, discussion, and debate in deliberative bodies and organized assemblies. These procedures ensure that everyone is on the same page at the same time and that everyone has the right to participate.
Rights include 4 Pillars of Parliamentary Procedure
(1) One thing at a time
One subject, many motions
Only one person speaking at a time
(2) Justice for all
Members have rights; courtesy rules, all should be given an opportunity to be heard, all are equal
Remarks are directed to the Chair who maintains order and enforces member rights; the Chair is impartial: the Chair has more duties but not more rights than members
(3) Respect for the Rule of Law
Bylaws, law always control but may be amended in a particular manner
Majority rules on new business
(4) All Voices May be Heard
In addition to fairness, parliamentary procedure allows your meetings to actually get things done. It lets the members work smarter, not harder. There are some meetings that are orderly, a dominating president, for example, who gets things done, whether you want it done or not. Some meetings are democratic, everyone talking for as long as they want, and usually nothing ever getting done. A better way is through parliamentary procedure which has the advantage because it is both Fair and Efficient.
Some of the ideas of parliamentary procedure are very simple, but people remain resistant. Some think it is too hard to follow the rules, some think it stifles their creativity.
If the presiding officers and members learn a few simple rules, meetings for any kind of club become meaningful and real work gets done. Thomas Jefferson warned that a presiding officer would want to avoid ruling “by caprice or passion” and therefore would need to turn to a known system of rules.
The book that most organizations use is RONR. This book is a reference manual and is used when your bylaws or standing rules do not cover the situation. This makes your specific governing authority easy to manage, read, and amend.
Your organization will be governed by bylaws (and possibly also other documents). Bylaws are rules adopted by your club to govern its actions. The bylaws will establish who the officers are, who the members are, when the meetings will be held, what committees are required, rules for elections, how they may be amended and so forth. Some bylaws are basic, some are detailed. Some are easy to read, some are not.
Your bylaws should contain those rules your group considers so fundamental that these rules cannot be changed without previous notice and a large vote approving the change. Even someone who is not at a meeting should be able to rely on the bylaws being followed.
Another type of governing document your group may have is Standing Rules, which are related to the details of your organization, not its parliamentary rules. Parliamentary rules will be found in your parliamentary authority, usually RONR. Standing rules generally arise as needed, for example, setting the meeting time. Standing rules can be adopted or amended as other motions, that is, they do not require previous notice and are adopted or changed by a majority vote.
Let’s envision a basic regular meeting. Before the meeting begins, a few matters must be settled. (1) You must have two people to conduct a meeting: a presiding officer and a secretary to take minutes. Usually, the presiding officer is the president, but it may be the vice president if the president is unable to attend. And so you know, if there is no special bylaw, if both the president and vice president are absent, the secretary calls the meeting to order ad a chairman pro tem is elected.
The second essential officer is the secretary. At a meeting this is usually the elected secretary but if that person is absent, the president will appoint someone to serve as secretary pro tem. Don’t be afraid of minutes. Minutes are important because they are the legal & historical record of your meeting. They are not that hard to take, if you create them while your memory is fresh. There are sample minutes right in RONR that should make it easy for a beginner to take accurate, painfree minutes.
(2) Another matter that must be settled before a meeting starts is that a quorum must be present. Before the meeting is called to order, the presiding officer should ensure that there is a quorum as defined in your bylaws (or, if not the bylaws don’t address it, a majority of the membership). It is absolutely essential that a quorum be present to take action for the group. To conduct business with only a few people present denies majority rule and fails to protect absentees. Imagine a meeting only a few people attended – could they vote in an unpopular idea – yes. This would be rule by a small, temporary minority. Robert’s and (usually) your bylaws don’t allow this.
Just so you know, if you don’t have a quorum, you can hold your program without any business. You may recess and try to scrape up a quorum, you may adjourn, or you may adjourn to a specific time.
Back to our meeting. You have a quorum, a presiding officer, a secretary, folks have copies of their bylaws and Robert’s Rules, AND they are ready to sit quietly and hear what is being said. The presiding officer is ready to make the meeting orderly and demonstrates impartiality. Isn’t this the best way?
Imagine you are elected president. The job of the presiding officer is much easier than you may think because much of what you do or say is already set out in a standard order of business, an agenda. Sometimes your bylaws spell out an order of business, particularly for conventions, but if not, RONR does. Spending a little time to prepare before you hold the gavel will empower you to serve your club and, as a bonus, it will make you look sharp as well.
After the meeting is called to order, first come opening ceremonies, such as the invocation, pledge of allegiance, introduction of guests. Then, you proceed down the agenda. The agenda will be somewhat different in the case of a convention, but a normal meeting agenda includes the following:
Reading and Approval of Minutes
Reports of Officers and Standing Committees – as listed in the bylaws
Reports of Special Committees
Unfinished Business and General Orders
“Mrs. Sun” is how many people remember it. Pretty simple, but it can be even simpler by having a script or notes to proceed correctly. There are a few potential areas of “heavy action” and a few common misunderstandings. Let’s go over the trouble spots.
Minutes) After the secretary reads (or distributes) the minutes, the presiding officer says, “Are there any corrections to the minutes”? She does not say “are there any corrections or additions”? Additions are corrections.
2) In getting the minutes approved, the presiding officer may use “unanimous consent” to approve the minutes. She may say, “If there is no objection, the minutes stand approved as read.” After suggestions are made, the minutes can be corrected by unanimous consent or majority vote.
3) Please note that the minutes should not include the name of the seconder!!!
Reports) Motions arising out of officer or chairman reports should be taken up immediately, rather than waiting for new business. In the case of officer reports, motions should not be made by the officer but by another member; chairmen may make the motion in connection with their reports. An experienced presiding officer can help by drawing out the motion, “are you moving to [name the recommendation]?”
Reports) Often the only officer to report is the treasurer. Other officers should be called on to give reports if they present & have a report! The Treasurer’s Report should not be adopted. It is given for information and should merely be placed on file.
5) A Special Order is an item of business that has been postponed to a specific time in a meeting & given the priority designation. A Special Order is also an item of business the bylaws requires to be held at this meeting, such as election of officers. Most clubs do not see a special order except for the report of the nominating committee and annual election.
6) Unfinished Business does NOT mean matters that have been discussed in the past. This confusion comes from incorrectly calling it “Old” business. Time is wasted in meetings if people rehash things that have already been decided. Most meetings will not have unfinished business at all, but it is a useful concept. Please understand that the president will know (or should know) if there is unfinished business! So the president does not even need to ask “Is there any unfinished business” if there isn’t any.
Unfinished Business means matters not completed at a previous meeting. For example, you were discussing a matter, but a successful motion to adjourn was made. You didn’t vote down or approve the motion; it is unresolved. At the next meeting, you would take up this “unfinished” motion.
General Order means a motion that has been made an Order of the Day, usually by being postponed to the next meeting by majority vote.
Now you know what Unfinished Business and General Orders mean. You will have many meetings without either one.
8) You should not recess or adjourn for the program. You should just proceed to the program. There are ways to move the program around, as we will see, but it is part of the meeting. The main reason for this is that you may want to take action, such as donating money, based on the program.
Closing is pretty simple also. After there is no further new business, the program would normally be heard. After that, the president may give announcements & ask members if they have any. Then, adjournment.
I hope these few remarks on conducting an orderly, fair meeting will be helpful. For more information, visit the National Association of Parliamentarians at parliamentarians.org and the American Institute of Parliamentarians at aipparl.org
For all your meetings, keep the Parliamentary Pillars in mind:
(1) One thing at a time
(2) Justice for all
(3) Honor the Rule of Law, as set forth in your bylaws, RONR, law of the law, and
(4) All Voices May be Heard
I close with the reminder to that to fully participate in your organizations and government. Always be orderly, courteous, and prepared.
Your American neighbor wishes each of you productive, happy meetings.
Attorney at Law
Professional Registered Parliamentarian