Sanctioning Rogue Board Members
December 2, 2021
Ann G. Macfarlane
Category: Guest Author , Legislative Body
In general, people who serve on local government councils, boards, or commissions are focused and willing to work with other members. But every once in a while, you get a rogue board member. What can be done? At Jurassic Parliament, we believe that it’s important for governing bodies to be prepared to sanction rogue members when necessary.
This is an unpleasant subject. However, all human organizations, even benign institutions like hospitals, schools, and retirement communities, depend on power enforcement for their survival. If a member on your governing body is disrupting your work, Jurassic Parliament recommends you seek allies and take action. (Read this excellent article on the “Outlier Syndrome” for perspective on rogue board members.)
Note that this post applies only to members of local government bodies. Professional organizations with ethics requirements for their members will have separate procedures. The blog also does not apply to citizens giving public comment at meetings. See Jurassic Parliament’s guidelines on that topic.
Establish Clear Guidelines and Expectations
The first and most important step is to establish clear guidelines and behavioral expectations. If you have adopted Robert’s Rules of Order as your parliamentary authority, you have the basics in place. It can also be helpful to adopt more detailed discussion guidelines — see Jurassic Parliament’s blog on effective meeting mangament. See also MRSC’s guidance on local ethics codes. When everybody knows what is expected and agrees on how your group will conduct its business, managing that business becomes much easier.
As a reminder, all persons present at a meeting have an obligation to obey the legitimate orders of the presiding officer (see Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th edition, Section 61:8).
Your rules should include the power to sanction
In drafting bylaws or procedural rules, it’s easy to forget to mention sanctions. It’s human nature to hope that everyone will be polite and act appropriately in all circumstances. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.
Including the power to sanction (and specific actions that may be taken as part of a sanction) in your bylaws or procedural rules will make it easier to tackle the problem if it occurs.
What Kinds of Offenses Should Be Sanctioned?
Given human ingenuity, there are many actions that could be subject to sanction. Here’s a starter list:
- Failing to offer courtesy and respect, using insulting or foul language in discussion,
- Failing to observe the rules of discussion: interrupting others, speaking out of turn, speaking beyond the established time limits,
- Violating the confidentiality of executive session,
- Failing to observe ethics guidelines, and/or
- Taking actions outside the meeting that are aimed at undermining a board decision.
What sanctions can be imposed?
Obviously, sanctions should be considered only when there is an ongoing problem. Before embarking on the sanctions route, we recommend that a serious conversation be held with the offender, and that the individual be encouraged to change behavior without formal action by the governing body. Sometimes bringing alternate options to the offender’s attention is enough to bring about change.
If that isn’t effective, you may have to impose a sanction. Craig Freshley wrote that “ideal penalties inflict just the right amount of hurt in order to tilt the scales toward compliance.” Options include verbal admonishment, letter of reprimand, formal motion of censure, and removal from external or internal committees.
What if problems arise during a meeting of the governing body? Sanctions can also be imposed in this scenario. Note that directing a member to leave the meeting at which the behavior occurs, muting a member during an online meeting, or removing the chair during a meeting are all drastic steps and should only be used if the member is actually disrupting the meeting and preventing business from moving forward (see RCW 42.30.050). Consult with your attorney before taking such action.
Who can vote on sanctions?
Since misbehavior is a serious matter, it’s best to require that a majority of the entire governing body (not just those present at a particular meeting) vote in favor. Check your jurisdiction’s ethics policy to determine whether the person who is the subject of the proposed sanction may vote on the motion or not.
From the perspective of parliamentary procedure, Robert’s Rules has a detailed disciplinary process, specifically noting that it is possible to adopt a motion of censure without formal disciplinary procedures (Section 61:2).
The formal disciplinary process is described in Section 63. It states that if the process has been started, the member may not vote on the motion proposing to sanction them. Robert’s Rules also says that if a member offends repeatedly during a meeting, to the extent that the presider has warned the offender three times and “named” the member, they also may not vote (Section 61:17) on their case. In other circumstances, however, the member may vote on the motion proposing to sanction them.
Even if you don’t follow the formal disciplinary process, you may want to establish a special or select committee to consider the behavior and recommend action to the governing body. See also MRSC’s guidance on local ethics codes.
Finally, it is essential to use sanctions wisely. They should not be used to silence a minority or a minority member just because the majority disagrees.
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.