Guide on the Side - Parliamentary Procedure (Part III), The RealitiesBy Marie Wallace, Published on November 1, 2000
"... to use Harry Potter language, at any meeting there are the wizards and muggles, and the wizards are the ones that prevail.
There are over 11 million meetings a day, each with a story about the rules groups observe to solve problems. Fortunately, I did not get a million responses to my request for parliamentary stories. The ones I received suggest that there is a spectrum of parliamentary behaviors. At one end, organizations do an outstanding job of learning parliamentary protocols and tolerating members while they learn At the opposite end, civility gets so out of hand that organizations are forced to disband. Fortunately, there are more organizations at the learning end than at the unruly end of the spectrum.
In the middle, there appear to be a variety of parliamentary behaviors arrived at by consensus. Members tacitly agree on the norms. "Parliamentary procedure" means "how we agree to do it here." As long as everyone perceives the meetings to be fair and open, the business of the organization is conducted with common approval.
The informal approach works best for small groups. It may work indefinitely but there is a danger that informality leads to contempt. To illustrate, a civic organization's Board thrived for 15 years, then a former Board member was elected President. At the first meeting, the new President announced "I never liked Robert's Rules and am not going to follow them." By the third meeting, Board members were getting restive. There was never an agenda and the President did not share correspondence or announcements. At the fourth meeting, a Committee Chair requested permission to make a report. The President knew what was in the report and did not want to hear it. The request to report was denied. The Committee Chair was a forceful person and announced that since she could not make her report she was leaving. "This meeting violates the Bylaws." She asked people who agreed to leave with her.
Half the Board got up and left. There was no longer a quorum. The President whined "I am so mortified, I think I should resign." A remaining member said "Maybe you should." On that note the meeting was adjourned. Subsequently, there was a Board caucus on what to do next. The President made it clear that she wanted a vote of confidence from the Board. A vote was taken and the President lost. The Vice-President assumed the reins. But that was not the end of the story. The incident left the ex-President and others with bad feelings. Valuable social capital had been wasted. It took years for the organization to recover from the rift. This fiasco was not a matter of ignorance of parliamentary procedure or lack of a parliamentarian. The ex-President was a public school elementary teacher and blamed everything on Robert's Rules. "If Mr. Robert was not so archaic sounding I would not have ignored him."
Most large organizations (over 500) evolve to the stage where they engage a professional parliamentarian for annual meetings. They say it pays off in preventative maintenance. There is a pre-meeting inspection of where difficulties might arise. Any standing or special rules are compiled and distributed in advance to prepare members.
The transition from a do-it-yourself to a professional parliamentarian may require some acclimation. One organization hired a professional as a precaution for a meeting with several controversial items on the agenda because the parliamentarians from within the organization frequently issued a ruling and then had to change it when further reading of the rules, or challenges by the members, found the ruling to be in error. The professional was introduced as a solution to messy meetings. It was not long before the meeting presented the professional with a spaghetti bowl of motions, amendments, and amendments to amendments. The parliamentarian ruled and the ruling was clearly wrong. The audience recognized the error immediately and so did the professional. The error was perceived as a procedural pratfall and everyone laughed. Fellowship with the outsider had been established.
Another President engaged a professional parliamentarian from one of the national parliamentary associations. (See Part 1.) She selected one who lived locally to save on transportation costs. The first day's business meeting progressed smoothly without dissension and the presence of the professional gave the President confidence. On the second day, the parliamentarian didn't arrive as scheduled. The meeting began without him. Shortly before adjournment, the President was surprised to see the parliamentarian arrive in a state of agitation. His story was that he had arrived early and sat down in the hotel lobby to wait for the meeting to begin. He fell asleep and woke up late. (Hibernation is not a common trait of professional parliamentarians.)
These two stories show that professional parliamentarians are human. Their biggest value is to go over the agenda and spot potential problems. The down side to hiring professionals is that they are unfamiliar with the organization and its traditions and require orientation and briefing.
Here is a "dog gone it" story. A small service organization operated somewhat informally for many years. A new member of the Board served several years, made a favorable impression and was elected President. He was a CPA and the Board assumed basic organizational skills. The out-going President gave the in-coming President a box of records, including the Corporate Seal and the Articles of Incorporation plus the Minute books for the past six years. It soon became apparent that the new President did not have a clue how to run a meeting or an organization. He was not open to suggestion. Along the line, it also became clear that the box of records has disappeared. With a straight face the new President reported "Maybe the dog ate it." The records where never found. At the end of the term, a new President was elected and the organization picked up where the dog left off.
A large athletic organization, whose members are as competitive in arguing as they are in their sport, uses a member for its parliamentarian. He is selected for superlative sense of humor and diplomacy. He freely admits to being "parliamentary challenged" and quips "I am a learner and but I am a stickler for fairness." He has a talent for making complex motions clear and simple, especially the double-negative variety. This Parliamentarian orchestrates an unusually large number of Action Items with close to 50% of the members speaking on hotly contested motions. He is successful with the iron fist and smile approach.
It pays to review the rules at the beginning of each meeting. In small committee meetings, this can be formal or light, such as, "There will be no chair throwing, fire arms or unusually foul language and the Chair reserves the right to kick anyone out." The Chair then illustrates by showing his foot in a cast.
A historical society that approves building and remodeling permits takes parliamentary procedure very seriously. New officers receive parliamentary training. They are meticulous about maintaining records and a log of actions pertaining to properties. Members report that meetings are a pleasure to attend and there is competition for membership because the organization is held is such high esteem.
Several readers commented that frequently there is an organizational gadfly whose purpose in life is to stir things up. If the parliamentarian or President do not neutralize this behavior, meetings become contentious and a waste of time. Membership dwindles and it is harder and harder to find new officers. Also, the organization may be at risk.
To illustrate, a group was organized to raise funds for a fire department so it could continue to provide disaster preparedness training to civilians. A group of men and women with extensive community credentials were contacted and agreed to serve on the new Board. All had impressive resumes of volunteer experience and knowledge of parliamentary procedure. Officers were elected, Bylaws drafted and the organization incorporated. At first meetings were only mildly fractious but two things were clear. The President and Treasurer disliked each other intensely and both considered themselves experts on Robert's Rules. The rules became a weapon.
One evening there was a nasty disagreement between the President and Treasurer over an expenditure. One was shoving the other trying to grab a document. It was on the verge of turning into a barroom brawl, when the Fire Department Captain, whose expertise is emergencies, got up and shouted "Everyone evacuate now, except you and you!" Everyone went outside except the President and Treasurer. No one knows exactly what transpired between the two feuding people and the Captain. The meeting reconvened to adjourn. At the next meeting the Treasurer threatened to sue. The fire department wanted to avoid negative publicity and asked that the group dissolve. And that is what happened. The reality of this story is that vindictive or single-minded people can play havoc on an organization even when there is a high level of parliamentary proficiency.
A reality is that parliamentary procedure is a form of entertainment. It involves drama, rhetoric, wit and surprises. Stories, legends and myths develop about past meetings. It is fun to joust, argue, make mistakes, correct others and watch the fleet-of-mouth maneuver. Conflict makes an organization healthy and rules administered with humor make for memorable group decisions. "Remember the time we..." Finally to use Harry Potter language, at any meeting there are the wizards and muggles, and the wizards are the ones that prevail.