Should Our Council Adopt Robert's Rules of Order?
March 1, 2012
Ann G. Macfarlane
Category: Council-Commission Advisor
This Advisor column was originally published in April 2011.
The State of Washington gives city councils wide authority to decide how they will carry on their business:
The council shall determine its own rules and order of business, and may establish rules for the conduct of council meetings and the maintenance of order.
Some councils have adopted, by resolution or ordinance, a set of guidelines for this purpose, and others have not. Many of these guidelines include reference to Robert's Rules of Order, using such language as "meetings shall be governed by Robert's Rules of Order and these council rules of procedure. In case of a conflict, the council rules of procedure shall prevail."
Recently it was suggested to Jurassic Parliament that Robert's Rules of Order is too complicated for small cities and towns, and they would do better not to adopt it. We agree that the book is complicated, but we believe that Robert's Rules still provides the best and most useful set of rules of order for civic bodies in our state - provided that folks are willing to do a little work and learn how to use Robert's Rules properly. Our argument runs like this:
- The fundamental principles in Robert are common to all our civic discourse and are not hard to learn. Everyone participating in council debate and discussion should understand that the majority will rule, that the minority have rights that must be respected, that members have a right to information to help make decisions, that courtesy and respect are required, that all members have equal rights, privileges and obligations, and that members have a right to an efficient meeting.
- The use of written motions and amendments provides an efficient and fair way to consider proposals and modify them in accord with the group's preferences. The method is a little unusual, in that amendments are taken up before the motion is voted on, but once groups get used to it, the system works well.
- Robert's rule that no one may speak a second time until everyone who wishes to do so has spoken once is vital to equalizing power imbalances and giving everyone a fair shake in discussion. We believe that it should be observed by all groups, whether or not they have formally adopted Robert.
- Robert provides "special rules for small boards" that can be useful for smaller councils, should they choose to apply them.
- Robert also allows groups to develop and apply their own "special rules of order," so if a body wishes to change something in Robert, it is perfectly free to do so.
- In sticky situations, "do-it-yourself" rulemaking can lead to ad hoc invention of rules, likely supplied by the chair on his own authority. A chair who makes up rules or improvises on the basis of vague memories from student government days is a sure path to problems, especially if the rule-maker has an air of authority about him (or her).
- While councils often rely on their attorney for advice in this arena, in our experience few attorneys have had serious training in parliamentary procedure and few correct the common and widespread misunderstandings about Robert's Rules.
- A body cannot do its work without some guidelines. Failing to adopt Robert doesn't mean that there are no guidelines - but without a specific "parliamentary authority," in times of conflict a group will be driven back to rely on "common parliamentary law." Finding out what "common parliamentary law" requires and how it applies to a given situation is likely to be complicated and expensive, requiring time and attention from legal counsel and qualified parliamentary consultants. Far better to have set the terms of discourse in advance, so that everyone knows and agrees to the way they will consider matters.
We believe that adopting a set of common-sense guidelines based on Robert's Rules, incorporating Robert by reference for the more unusual or complicated situations that may arise, and then committing to the education necessary to get everyone on the same page, will pay big dividends for every council willing to make the effort.
That education can be quite affordable. Every city budget ought to be able to provide a copy of Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised in Brief to each council member. This little book is a splendid summary of the rules applicable to all but the most exceptional situations. At $7.00 it's an amazing buy, and you can read it in an evening.
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.