skip navigation
Share this:

Four Bad Habits to Avoid at Council Meetings

February 9, 2018  by  Ann G. Macfarlane
Category:  Legislative Body Guest Author

Four Bad Habits to Avoid at Council Meetings

There are a number of “urban myths” about Robert’s Rules of Order that can get in the way of democratic process for your council. If your municipality, county council, or special district avoids these bad habits, congratulations!

If these errors happen at your meetings, however, you might want to bring them to the attention of your colleagues to straighten them out — in a pleasant way, of course!

Misuse of “call the question”

Many people believe that if a member says “I call the question,” discussion on the motion being considered must stop immediately. This is a widespread and very unfortunate misunderstanding.

If you say, “I call the question,” it just means that you — as a single individual — would like to stop debate and vote now. The chair must ask for a second and then take the vote by show of hands because two-thirds of the members must agree for debate to stop.

The reason is that stopping debate limits members’ rights, and in general, a two-thirds vote is needed when members’ rights are limited or extended. While it may seem odd to vote on whether to vote, with time, your group will get used to this and use it properly.

Misuse of the “friendly amendment” 

If a motion has been made, seconded, and stated by the chair, it is open to discussion, debate, and amendment by the members.

One common mistake occurs when a member says, “May I offer a friendly amendment?” The chair sometimes then turns to the maker and the seconder to ask if they will accept this amendment. To do this denies the basic fact that a motion belongs to all the body, not just to the person who proposed it. It gives the maker a special “proprietary” right in her motion which, in fact, she doesn’t have.

Instead, the chair can say, “A friendly amendment is handled just like any other amendment — is there a second?” The group then proceeds with its discussion and votes on the amendment in the usual way.

Abuse of power by the chair

The chair of a meeting is charged with ensuring a fair process and following the procedures that the group has adopted. He is not responsible for the decision that the group makes. It is the group itself that has that authority.

Sometimes chairs are over-assertive in running a meeting. They refuse to recognize a legitimate motion, or to acknowledge a “point of order.” The members should know how to bring a chair in line by using “appeal.”

When running a meeting, the chair or presider is the servant of the group, and the group, not the chair, is the final authority.

Allowing a few members to dominate the conversation

In council, committee, commission, and board meetings, it can happen that a few members get most of the air time. This is a bad habit that weakens the effectiveness of the group’s discussion.

The remedy is that sterling rule, “No one may speak a second time until everyone who wishes to do so has spoken once.”

Whether the chair keeps track of who has spoken, maintaining a little list for future speakers, or whether you use the “round robin” method of discussion, following this rule will ensure a democratic process and lessen your chances of “groupthink.”

A new resource for effective public meetings

Interested citizens, residents, elected officials, and staff have a new resource to understand how public meetings function: the Citizen’s Guide to Effective Conduct of Public Meetings Using Parliamentary Procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order in Washington State. This document was prepared by a team of nine professional parliamentarians, myself included.

While the title is a mouthful, the content is simple. The Citizen’s Guide explains in plain English the respective roles of mayor or chair, members of the body, and the public, and answers many questions that have arisen over the years about the right way to run public meetings. It is a pro-bono publication and may be freely copied and distributed according to the Creative Commons license found in the Guide’s front page. 

David Baker, President of the Sound Cities Association Board and Mayor of Kenmore, Washington, stated: “The SCA Board regards this Citizen’s Guide as a tremendous tool for the public to understand how council meetings are run.” 

Key points

  • The Revised Code of Washington authorizes city councils and other public bodies to establish rules for the conduct of their meetings and the maintenance of order.
  • The set of ordinary and customary rules that councils usually choose for their meetings is “parliamentary procedure.” These rules form part of the common law. The courts have found that public bodies must follow parliamentary principles.
  • The person in charge of running the meeting — mayor, president, chair — must follow the principles of parliamentary procedure. During the meeting, he or she is the servant of the group and the group is the final authority. The group’s final authority is exercised by using the motion to appeal.

There is much more. The Citizen’s Guide also covers:

  • obligations of the mayor
  • how debate should be conducted
  • five types of remarks that are unacceptable because they are irrelevant
  • details on voting
  • use of point of order and appeal
  • adjournment and ordering a member to leave the meeting
  • public comment period

Note that the Citizen’s Guide is written strictly from the point of view of parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th edition. Nothing in the Citizen’s Guide constitutes legal advice. Consult MRSC and your attorney for guidance on specific questions that may arise about conduct of public meetings.

Many thanks to my esteemed colleagues who contributed time and thought to prepare this Citizen’s Guide:

  • John Berg, PRP
  • Kevin R. Connelly, PRP, CP
  • K. Ann McCartney, PRP, CP-T
  • Paul McClintock, PRP, CP-T
  • Weldon L. Merritt, PRP, CPP
  • Beverly Przybylski, PRP
  • Mary L. Randolph, PRP, CPP-T
  • Matthew J. Schafer, PRP

Questions? Comments?

If you have questions about this topic or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have questions or comments about this blog post, please email the MRSC Insight Editors.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Ann G. Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments, and blogs regularly at

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Ann G. Macfarlane


Blog Archives


Email Updates

Receive MRSC's latest articles and analysis through our Weekly Insights e-newsletter.