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Take it Back, We've Changed Our Mind!

By Ann G. Macfarlane, Professional Registered Parliamentarian™ Jurassic Parliament

In our work with councils, special districts and other public bodies, we often encounter confusion about how a group can change an action that it has taken. For small groups like most councils, it's easy. Here is some information that will simplify the matter, based on Robert's Rules of Order, 11th edition ("Robert"). Bear with me if it seems a bit technical - we predict that understanding the arithmetic will prove worth the trouble.

This is, of course, a general outline. Not all councils have adopted Robert's Rules of Order. We emphasize that any regulations, ordinances or policies that apply to your specific body will supersede these guidelines, so "don't try this at home" - in other words, check with your attorney before applying the generic rules from Robert.

  1. A group of up to about 12 people is a "small board." Robert has special rules for small boards, which can be found on pages 487-488.

  2. In a small board, it is important to distinguish among three different types of votes. We'll use a council of seven members as our example.
    1. "Majority vote" means that a majority (more than half) of those who cast a vote are in favor of the measure. In our council of seven, if all seven councilmembers are present and voting, a "majority vote" means that at least four people vote in favor. If two people call in sick and miss the meeting, so only five councilmembers are present and voting, a "majority vote" means that at least three people vote in favor.

    2. "Two-thirds vote" means that at least two-thirds of those who cast a vote are in favor. In our council of seven, if everyone is present and votes, at least five people must vote in favor. If those two councilmembers are malingering again, and only five people are present to vote, at least four people must vote in favor.

    3. "Majority of the entire body" means a majority of those who are in office. In our council of seven, a majority of the entire body is four people. If the two councilmembers have recovered and gone off to Los Cabos for a vacation, so only five councilmembers are present at the meeting, a majority of the entire body is still four people.

  3. Notice the tricky part about these numbers: on our small council of seven, if everyone is present and voting, a two-thirds vote requires five people but a majority of the entire body requires only four people.

  4. Now here's the kicker: According to Robert, on a council, board, or committee a majority of the entire body can undo or change a previous action without any notice being required. The group would use the motion "to rescind" to undo an action, or the motion "to amend something previously adopted" to change it (pp. 305-310).

  5. Few people seem to know about this, so councils can spend a lot of time worrying about "reconsider" or "who voted in favor" or "two-thirds votes" when it isn't necessary.

  6. If your rules of procedure or policy establish stricter requirements, of course you'll need to follow those requirements.

  7. Note that if the previous action involved something impossible to undo, it can't be rescinded. Similarly if the action involved a resignation, an election, or an expulsion from office, and the person was present or has been officially notified, it can't be undone.

  8. Note that if the previous action involved a contract, or some other action that has had consequences outside your chambers, you'll have to consult your attorney about how best to undo or change it.

So there you have it: it's easier than you may think to take things back. Robert's Rules of Order is deeply and thoroughly democratic (no reference to political parties intended here). It gives wide-ranging authority to the majority of the entire body, and makes it easy to change or undo a previous action. And if your council hasn't adopted Robert's Rules or any other authority, these guidelines may apply under common parliamentary law. (Note that nothing in this article constitutes legal advice. For guidance on specific issues, consult your attorney or another qualified professional.)

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.

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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.