Any discussion of parliamentary procedure invariably leads to mention, if not outright debate of Roberts Rules of Order. Currently in its 11th edition, “Roberts Rules” was originally published in 1876. It has become the definitive reference work for the procedures that assure meetings are conducted fairly and orderly.
Although the rules defined by General Henry M. Robert (U.S. Army) are more applicable to large deliberative and legislative assemblies, they are entirely appropriate for smaller groups, especially those without their own adopted rules of procedure.
The essence of Robert’s Rules is a series of motions that delineate procedures for initiating, discussing and voting on items that are typically listed on a meeting agenda. Typically, the meeting chairman reads an agenda item and asks for a motion (called a Main Motion). After a motion is made, another member of the governing body must “second” that motion before any debate begins. Should no one speak up, the motion is set aside because it has, “died for lack of a second”.
When a motion is seconded, the meeting chairman calls for discussion, and if no significant issues are raised during that discussion, calls for a vote. A majority vote of the deliberative body is required to pass a motion, however, there are other options. The original motion may be modified following discussion, in which case the initial motion to approve may be changed to a motion to approve as amended.
The response to a call for a motion may also be to postpone or not to approve. The latter is somewhat rare because the person who sponsored the agenda item typically makes the main motion to approve. If other council members are not in favor, they simply vote against the motion.
That’s obviously a simplified over view of basic procedures, but as recent Snellville City Council meetings have demonstrated, debate can be quite heated, in which case a number of other motions may be made. Questions regarding procedural matters are usually addressed through “Incidental” or “Privileged” motions —such as, “Point of Order”, “Question of Privilege”, Point of Information” or “Appeal”.
“Privileged” and “Incidental” motions are designed to assure that all members of a deliberative body (such as a city council or commission) are allowed to exercise their rights to speak about and discuss issues. As such, they are designed to initiate respectful debate on procedural matters, not to provide an opportunity for the meeting chairman to bellow, “You’re out of order” in an effort to stifle debate.
The current paperback edition of Robert’s Rules of Order contains 669 pages, which indicates there is a lot more to parliamentary procedure than the foregoing description. That’s one of the reasons many city charters specify that the City Attorney, or other designated specialist serve as the parliamentarian during City Council meetings.
In total, Robert’s Rules is a complex flow chart that covers myriad aspects of running a fair and successful meeting. As applied to meetings such as those of a city council or county commission, only one or two sections of the master flow chart are usually applicable. And when actions and decisions are made in accordance with those sections, meetings run smoothly and efficiently.