Keep It Civilized Following Parliamentary Procedure Adds Decorum To Association Meetings

Keep It Civilized

In a community association or HOA meeting without procedural rules and organization, it's amazing how quickly a room full of adults can devolve into a room full of toddlers—everyone talking over one another and no one listening, insuring that no actual objectives are achieved. Fortunately for anyone who has been spared the annoyance and aggravation of meeting turned kindergarten classroom, over a century ago, an Army engineering officer named Henry Martyn Robert really embarrassed himself.

One day, Robert was asked if he would preside over a church meeting. Not having any knowledge or experience as to what such a responsibility might entail, he made the decision to give it a try anyway. Things did not go as smoothly as he anticipated. As a result, according to the official website of Robert's Rules, (www.RobertsRules.org,) Robert vowed to never attend a meeting without any knowledge of parliamentary procedure again, and thus his studies began.

Parliamentary procedure defines howa democratic organization (loosely defined as your condo's board of trustees) works—how its members make decisions, how its leaders run the organization to meet the needs of its members, and the rights of non-members. Parliamentary procedure is vital to the fair operation of governments, corporations, homeowner associations, charities, and other organizations operating on democratic principles.

Due to his military duties, Robert was transferred to various parts of the country, and everywhere he went he found "virtual parliamentary anarchy," in which members from different parts of the country had differing ideas of correct procedure. Ultimately, the lack of a uniform parliamentary procedure led him to write Robert's Rules of Order, first published in February 1876. Initially a 16-page pamphlet, Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revisedis now in its 10th edition at around 700 pages. Interestingly enough, all editions of the work issued after Robert's death have been prepared by persons who either knew and worked with the original author or are connected to him in a direct continuity of professional association.

According to Teresa Dean, director of education for the American Instituteof Parliamentarians (AIP), the basic rules have only been modified slightly since 1876. The rules have been expanded as the need for more information has arisen, but today, Robert's Rules is perhaps the most well-known and comprehensive guide to parliamentary procedure.

The Basic Rules

Before a member in an assembly can make a motion or speak in debate, he or she must obtain the floor; that is, the member must be recognized by the chair as having the exclusive right to speak at that time. Once a member has been given the floor, he or she can make a motion, which introduces a matter for consideration by the group. Generally, a motion is set up with the phrase "I move that," and then must be secondedby another member, in order to open the motion up for discussion by the group. Following a discussion, any amendments to the motion will be brought up, and amendments must also be seconded and discussed. The amendment will be voted on first, and then the initial motion itself, as possibly amended, will be voted on.

According to Barry Glazer, president of the AIP, organizations should only hold one motion at a time. If an amendment to the motion is proposed, the main motion should not be discussed until a decision has been reached on what to do with the amendment. Discussion can resume onthe initial motion after the proposed amendment has been decided on.

The general purpose of parliamentary procedure, according to Dean, is to protect the rights of members in an organization: of the majority, of the minority, of individual members, of absentees, and of all of them together. For example, quorum is a rule that requires a certain number of members be present in order to conduct business. Other rules state that you cannot handle certain affairs in a meeting without advanced notice, insuring that group members are informed of important matters that will be at hand, and that the minority is given the opportunity to persuade the majority. Boiled down, the general purpose of parliamentary procedure, according to Glazer, "is to make meetings orderly and fair." Dean adds, "the benefit is democracy in action and in having decisions made by the majority."

Henry Goodman, a lawyer with the law firm of Goodman & Shapiro in Dedham, Massachusetts, recommends that the boards he represents "loosely follow Robert's Rules." Goodman encourages boards not to "stick to the rules to the point where whenever somebody moves, you have to look up a technical issue," which he views as a potential problem with relying on such a comprehensive and specific set of rules. In terms of association and shareholder meetings, the intricacy ofso many rules may not be necessary and could potentially hinder the flow of a meeting, he says.

According to Glazer, "Robert's Rules has enough flexibility that [boards] should be able to do reasonably, without having to change rules." This flexibility, when coupled with such a comprehensive set of rules, gives boards the option to custom tailor parliamentary procedure to best suit the needs of their organization. Being so well-known and comprehensive, Robert's Rules may be the best set for organizations with complicated business, but it may not be the best solution for simpler organizations. Goodman underscores Glazer's point, saying, in terms of annual shareholder or trustee meetings, "it is very difficult to imposea complex set of rules on a group of people that meet once a year."

As a solution, Goodman recommends a simplified set of rules, with the goals of keeping meetings as short and efficient as possible. He uses a set of rules that follows Robert's Rules in general, but adds some of his own modifications. For example, he recommends limiting a speaker's time to one minute, and giving the board the power to cut discussion if it starts to get too repetitive. Furthermore, he recommends that nobody be given the right to speak twice, before everyone has had the opportunity to speak on the subject. In this way, Goodman provides order, structure, and efficiency to his meetings, without getting bogged down in minutiae. Goodman's adaptation to the existing rules, demonstrates one way in which professionals are able to pick and choose from Robert's Rules to develop a structure that works best for them, their organizations, and the goals they hope to attain.

Follow Your Bylaws

The rules that an organization chooses to follow do not need to be bound to the fine print of Robert's Rules, Newly Revised, although some organizations state in their constitutionor bylaws that they will strictly follow the rules of the book. Bylaws are the parliamentary authority of an organization that lay out the form, manner, or procedure for how it is run. With so much information and so many rules in Robert's Rules, it is common that an organization cannot use them all, but still choose to fall back on the book in scenarios that are not covered by their governing bylaws or special rules of order written into the bylaws.

Although Robert's Rules recommends that certain provisions be incorporated into an organization's bylaws, Goodman disagrees. He advocates a looser, less rigid meeting structure, and does not necessarily recommend that Robert's Rules, or any other set of rules for that matter, be copied into the condominium documents. However, if it is deemed necessary, he suggests putting these rules in the more easily amendable rules and regulations of the governing documents, rather than in the bylaws. Goodman reiterates his belief in a moreinformal meeting structure, saying, "I would not want to see a meeting hamstrung by a technicality resulting from rigid rules."

Ultimately, the purpose of Robert's Rules is to provide a means of keeping shareholder, board of director, and community association meetings fair and effective. The decision of how meetings will be run is up to the board and the association, and Robert's Rules is just a vehicle to provide ideas of just how to run a meeting, while emphasizing the importance of parliamentary procedure to keep things fair and above-board. So, if your board has failed to reasonably accomplish the objectives they set out in their condo or HOA meetings (hopefully, not due to crying, hair pulling and crayon eating), perhaps it is time that you, like Henry Martyn Robert before you, introduced your fellow members to the benefits and purposes of parliamentary procedure.

Brendan Flaherty is a staff writer for New England Condominium magazine.

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