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