Do We Have to Obey the Mayor?
After 20 years in this business, it seems to me that questions of authority are some of the hardest to resolve.
Over and over I find city councils, boards of directors, and other governing boards struggling with the question, "Who's in charge here, anyway?" If a group understands certain fundamental principles, it becomes much easier to resolve those tensions and move forward effectively.
During a consultation, this sentence from a set of "council rules and procedures" made my hair stand on end:
All persons present at a meeting must obey the mayor's orders.
This rule is profoundly wrong. It may look legitimate, but it isn't. The mayor, when running a meeting of the city council, is the presiding officer, not a dictator. The presiding officer runs the meeting as the servant of the members.
The rule, as corrected below, is similar to the one cited above but has a subtle and essential difference:
All persons present at a meeting must obey the legitimate orders of the presiding officer.
The legitimate orders of the presiding officer are those issued in accordance with the rules and procedures adopted by the group, to serve the group. And according to Robert's Rules of Order and common parliamentary law, the orders of the presiding officer are subject to appeal by any two members of the group.
For example, if the presiding officer declares that someone is speaking off topic and must stop forthwith, the member can say "I appeal." If another member says "Second," then the group, itself, will vote to decide whether the member may continue.
Why don't people know this? Why do councilmembers, county commissioners, directors of special districts, and nonprofit board members allow the mayor, the chair, or the president to exercise unquestioned authority over the group and to act as if he or she were the final authority?
We have lost the common understanding of meeting procedure that emerged in this country when America was alive with associations: associations that astonished the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, as well as many English authors who toured the continent.
We have instead become used to the image of the "captain of industry;" the hard-charging boss who carries everyone in his/her wake. We want to be nice and "get along," and it may seem safer to keep our heads down.
But remember: Elected officials, citizens appointed to commissions and committees, and volunteers, you have rights too! Yes, we have to obey the mayor when the mayor is enforcing the rules we chose, but it’s precisely those same rules that ultimately make the group — and not the mayor — the final authority.
A Free Resource for Effective Public Meetings
Interested citizens, residents, elected officials, and local government staff interested in learning more about how public meetings function can access a free resource prepared by a team of nine professional parliamentarians.
The Citizen’s Guide to Effective Conduct of Public Meetings Using Parliamentary Procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order in Washington State answers many questions that have arisen over the years about the right way to run public meetings. The Citizen’s Guide also covers:
- obligations of the mayor
- how debate should be conducted
- five types of remarks that are inappropriate 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
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.