Just follow the rules -- they're there for a reason

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Tuesday night, Bedford County Board of Commissioners tried to table a motion, only to have their attorney point out there was no motion on the floor for them to table.

I've been covering local government meetings for the Times-Gazette -- mostly county government, but city and towns as well -- for the past 32 years, as of next month. In that time, I've seen a lot of things that would make Henry Martyn Robert cringe.

Who was Henry Martyn Robert? He was a U.S. Army officer who published "Robert's Rules of Order" in 1876.

Most governmental bodies pay lip service to Robert's Rules of Order, but many local governing bodies are pretty casual about how they follow it. That's OK -- but there are some mistakes that pop up frequently that would be avoided with a little closer observance of Robert's Rules.

Negatively-worded motions

I have seen this more times over the years that I can count. There's a debate about some controversial action, and someone opposed to it, and determined to hold the line, puts a motion on the floor that the council/committee/board/commission not take such-and-such an action. Then, the motion is defeated, which leads to confusion. The body hasn't actually voted to take action; it's merely failed to vote not to take action. The record would be clearer, and there would be a lot less confusion, if the opponents simply waited for a positively-worded motion and then voted it down.

Dilatory amendments

This is somewhat similar. A "dilatory amendment" is an amendment that pretty much negates the original motion. Let's say that Joe makes a motion that the fidget spinner be named the official toy of Bedford County. Joe's motion is properly seconded and discussion begins. Then, Sam proposes an amendment that the fidget spinner be banned, and declared a public nuisance instead of the official toy. By the strictest interpretation of Robert's Rules, Sam's amendment is dilatory and should not be allowed. Instead, Sam should work to defeat Joe's motion and then make his own separate motion to have fidget spinners banned. Amendments are for tweaking or refining the original motion, not for completely reversing it. This helps everyone keep track of what's on the table at any given time, and therefore helps avoid confusion, both during the meeting and later, when the minutes are being written up.

Amendments piling up

It's the responsibility of the chairman to make sure that only one motion is on the floor at a time, and only one amendment to the main motion. I've seen cases where a new amendment was made -- and allowed -- before the previous amendment had been voted on. That leads to confusion, and it's not fair to whoever is trying to keep the minutes.

Committee motions vs. individual motions

Some governing bodies have their own rules which override Robert's Rules of Order -- and that's OK, as long as they're followed consistently. But Robert's Rules say that if a motion comes out of committee -- if the committee has forwarded a motion to the main body that such-and-such action be taken -- it does not need to be moved and seconded. The chairman simply says something like, "here's the motion the committee has sent us," when we get to that point on the agenda, and then the motion can be discussed, amended if necessary, and voted on. Even if a committee forwards something with a negative recommendation, it still becomes an automatic motion, although the chair should probably point out that the committee is opposed to it. The only motions that need to be made and seconded from the floor are the ones that come directly from individual members.

Attorney Ginger Shofner, who was filling in for her colleague John T. Bobo Tuesday night, tried at one point to ascertain whether or not the commission's internal rules required that a motion and second come from the floor or whether a committee placing something on the agenda was sufficient. I don't think anyone really understood what she was asking.

The commission has operated for years under the assumption -- I'm not sure whether this is made explicit in the commission's rules or not -- that any piece of business requires a motion and a second from the floor, regardless of whether a committee placed it on the agenda. That differs from Robert's Rules of Order, but it's a practice the commission has followed for decades. The commission's rules committee had forwarded (with an unfavorable recommendation) a motion related to changing the rules for beer sales. But no commissioner ever made the motion from the floor, and so (under the commission's normal way of doing things) it was never actually under consideration. When commissioneer P.T. "Biff" Farrar called for a vote, there was nothing to vote on. When another commissioner called for the motion to be tabled, it couldn't be tabled because there wasn't an active motion to table.

Robert's Rules, when used effectively, can help reduce confusion and clean up record-keeping, so that a few years down the road, you can look back at a body's minutes and see clearly what that body did and didn't do. They're not a miracle cure, they're an effective tool.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government.

View 3 comments
Note: The nature of the Internet makes it impractical for our staff to review every comment. Please note that those who post comments on this website may do so using a screen name, which may or may not reflect a website user's actual name. Readers should be careful not to assign comments to real people who may have names similar to screen names. Refrain from obscenity in your comments, and to keep discussions civil, don't say anything in a way your grandmother would be ashamed to read.
  • Good article by John Carney on following Robert's Rules of Order in local government meetings.

    R. Carroll

    -- Posted by Randy Carroll on Thu, Jun 15, 2017, at 12:31 PM
  • *

    I know not everyone follows or cares about what the County Commission does on a regular basis, and that is a shame considering everything that happens up there affects everybody in the County. But John is right, we have laws and rules in place in order to avoid confusion and chaos. Last year I and Linda Yockey along with Ginger Shofner spent a great deal of time, over the course of many months, updating, correcting and amending the by-laws of the Commission whose official title is "Local Rules of the Board of Commissioners of Bedford County, Tennessee". We created no less than 6 drafts of that document and after each draft, reviewed it for clarity, correctness, and asked for comments from the other commissioners and the Mayor. Prior to the last draft we held a public work study session with the Rules and Legislative Committee. Finally on Jan, 10, 2017 the final draft was presented to the full commission and the rules were adopted unanimously by a vote of 18-0. Inside these rules, in RULE 1 SEC T"...All Rules not covered herein shall be governed by Robert's Rules of Order as contained in the latest copyrighted edition." and in RULE 1 Section L which covers motions: MOTIONS: "Motions may be made only by Board of Commissioners members." continuing on in section L 1. .."no motion shall be debated until the same is seconded and stated by the Chairperson." In all the Commission meetings I have attended, when an item is read from the Agenda, the words "Move to approve" are usually said and quickly followed buy "Second". In my mind it is clear that in order for the Commission to discuss an item there must be a motion from the floor and a second before there is to be any debate, discussion, amendments, vote, etc. In Tuesday nights meeting there was never a motion made or seconded, and Ginger was correct to point out no action could be taken. In hindsight what should have happened was to have a motion to accept, a second, and then a vote. With all those who have voiced opposition to changing the beer distance, the motion would have failed, and the matter properly disposed of. By our rules, the County Attorney is the parliamentarian, and is charged with explaining to the Commission any question on procedure, and in his absence the Commission .."may elect a parliamentarian to serve a such for that particular meeting." I believe that since Ginger works with, and was filling in for John T and also serves as the City attorney, she was well qualified and accepted as the parliamentarian, and acted correctly.

    Chuck Heflin

    County Commissioner 5th District

    -- Posted by Cheflinjr on Thu, Jun 15, 2017, at 1:47 PM
  • It's really quite nice to see someone who has more than a rudimentary grasp of Robert's rules. I have a few observations about the excellent exposition of Mr. Carney and about one of the comments.

    1. The current edition of Robert is "Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised" (RONR) (11th ed., 2011 deCapo Press/Perseus Book Group). The council might think about amending its rules to update the title, because the last copyrighted edition of "Robert's Rules of Order" was 1893. In 1915, the title became, "Robert's Rules of Order Revised," and in 1970, the seventh edition was retitled "Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised." The 11th edition was copyrighted in 2011, but the original title has been out of print for over 100 years. Ergo, abiding by the council's rules is somewhat problematic.

    2. "Motions for action on reports" (RONR p. 506 ff.) contains the rules about when committee report recommendations require motions and when such a motion may be "assumed" by the chairman. It is somewhat misleading to simply state that no motion is required. One thing is true, and that is that a motion that comes from a committee of more than one member does not need a second. That's because at least a couple of people (committee members) do want the matter to be considered. The article's author probably knows that the purpose of a second isn't to indicate agreement with the motion, but rather agreement that the motion should be taken up and decided. (I've seconded motions just so they could be voted down.)

    3. Some of the factors that go to the considerations about whether motions are actually necessary when dealing with committee reports include (1)a group's own customs where the chair might so frequently "assume" the motion that one would think no motions are necessary. But the fact is that the chair must frame the question as if it had been a motion and state clearly what the members are debating and voting on, and (2) the possibility that the council is availing itself of Robert's provisions for "PROCEDURE IN SMALL BOARDS" (RONR p. 487 ff.) where motions need not be seconded, and "When a proposal is perfectly clear to all present, a vote can be taken without a motion's having been introduced." This gets back to the real issue of whether it is "perfectly" clear about what is being decided.

    This council might be interested in having a professional parliamentarian conduct a workshop, or assist in revising the council's meeting rules to cover the subjects that Mr. Carney has so eloquently discussed. The National Association of Parliamentarians (www.parliemantarians.org) can help them locate a professional who would be honored to assist this council in tightening up things so as to save time and avoid troublesome situations.

    And, if the members are interested in a little more commentary on a host of provisions of Robert's rules, they might consider obtaining the companion book that will add to their perspective of the material. I recommend "Robert's Rules for Dummies," written by

    Yours truly,

    C. Alan Jennings, PRP

    Baton Rouge, Louisiana

    -- Posted by caj.btr on Thu, Jun 15, 2017, at 4:37 PM
Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: