Some rules are made to be broken—especially when they aren’t really rules in the first place.
The same errors are often made by different chairs, at different meetings, in different associations. Such mistakes are often the result of “meeting myths” that have taken on a life of their own. Things are done a certain way either because “they’ve always been done that way” or because they are “supposed” to be done that way. Unfortunately, as the Porgy & Bess song says: “It ain’t necessarily so.”
What follows are “meeting myths” that need to be put to rest. If you can eliminate one improper practice a month over the next year, your meetings will be faster, fairer and more effective.
MYTH: “WE DON’T USE PARLIAMENTARY PROCEDURE.”
Many associations also adopt a rule that they will follow a particular procedural book, such as Robert’s Rules of Order, during meetings. Members who act contrary to the rules they have adopted can be held liable for their actions. As a result, ignoring or incorrectly applying parliamentary procedure can lead to embarrassment and lawsuits.
MYTH: PARLIAMENTARY PROCEDURE AND ROBERT’S RULES OF ORDER ARE THE SAME THING.
The fact that RONR is the most used parliamentary book and the easiest to locate argues in its favor as a parliamentary authority. RONR is also an excellent resource and includes sections on presiding, the duties of officers, taking minutes, running elections, writing and amending bylaws, and holding board and committee meetings.
RONR is fairly easy to find—just be sure to buy the right book. There are numerous “clones” and earlier editions that are easy to buy by mistake. RONR is available in both hardcover and soft cover and can be identified by its gold cover.
MYTH: RULES ARE THE SAME FOR ALL MEETINGS.
In contrast, smaller boards and committees can be less formal. Formality can actually hinder business in a meeting of fewer than about a dozen. As a result, RONR recommends that in smaller boards and committees:
To avoid confusion as to what procedures to follow, many organizations adopt specific rules governing meetings. Such rules can be lengthy and may even describe what motions can be used during meetings. On the other hand, some organizations simply adopt a rule or two on such matters as recognition and the length of speeches. At a minimum, a rule should be adopted that a particular book will serve as the parliamentary authority.
MYTH: THE ABSENCE OF A QUORUM IS OKAY IF NOBODY BRINGS IT UP.
There is a belief that the lack of a quorum can be ignored if no one raises the issue. Not true! The general rule is that any business transacted without a quorum (except for a few procedural motions) is null and void, regardless of whether or not any member raises the issue. While some state laws allow for a meeting to start with a quorum and to continue if a quorum leaves, this is very different from not having a quorum in the first place.
MYTH: DISCUSSION FIRST, MOTION LATER.
MYTH: SECONDS ARE REALLY IMPORTANT.
Under RONR a seconder does not need to be recognized or even entered in the minutes. If a recommendation is from a committee, no second from the floor is needed.
MYTH: VOTE ON ALL REPORTS.
For example, the Budget Committee may have studied hiring a new management company. In her report, the committee chair might thank the members of the committee for their hard work and explain in detail the committee’s position and reasoning. At the end of her report, the committee chair would close by saying, “On behalf of the committee, I move that the association retain ABC management pursuant to the terms of the proposed contract.”
In contrast to common practice, treasurers’ reports seldom require action. When a treasurer is simply reporting the cash on hand or receipts minus disbursements, no action is necessary. Such a report should simply be filed for reference.
Treasurers often make more detailed yearly financial reports. Such reports should always be audited (either externally by an accountant or by an internal audit committee, depending on the association’s size and resources). The auditor’s report is then considered and adopted. Approval of the auditor’s report typically relieves the treasurer of responsibility for the period of the report, except in cases of fraud.
MYTH: A MOTION IS ALWAYS NECESSARY.
Unanimous consent allows an assembly to move quickly through non-controversial issues, so that more time can be spent on controversial issues. Reports and motions can be adopted, minutes can be approved, and debate can be ended with general consent.
A similar concept is the “consent agenda,” which is often on the agenda near the start of the meeting. The consent agenda (such as the adoption of the minutes) should include all non-controversial items. Any member can request that an item be removed from the consent agenda and transferred to the regular agenda for consideration and vote. The remaining consent agenda items are then unanimously approved as a unit without discussion.
MYTH: THE MAKER OF A MOTION GETS TO SPEAK FIRST AND LAST.
MYTH: ANYBODY CAN SPEAK AT OUR MEETINGS.
MYTH: A “FRIENDLY AMENDMENT” IS OKAY.
Once a motion is stated by the presiding officer, it belongs to the assembly. After that point, the maker has no more right than any other member to change the motion. Instead of using “friendly amendments,” the proper practice would be to use unanimous consent ("If there is no objection to this change, . . .") or to require that the amendment be made formally.
MYTH: “OLD BUSINESS.”
What is sometimes misnamed “old business” is actually “unfinished business.” Unfinished business refers to questions carried over from the previous meeting and includes:
The presiding officer will know if there are items of unfinished business. As a result, the presiding officer does not need to ask, “Is there any unfinished business?” Instead, the presiding officer simply states the question on the first item. If there is no unfinished business, this category of business can be skipped. Annual meetings typically have no unfinished business.
MYTH: THERE ARE TOO MANY MOTIONS IN PARLIAMENTARY PROCEDURE.
The Main Motion brings business before the assembly and is permitted only when no other motion is pending. Many issues can be resolved with this one motion. If you like the proposal, speak in favor of and vote for the main motion. If you dislike the proposal, speak against and vote against the main motion.
Other motions regularly used in meetings include:
MYTH: CALLING “QUESTION!” STOPS ALL BUSINESS.
The motion to close debate is just another motion. A person wanting to close debate must be recognized by the chair. The Previous Question requires a second. While the motion to close debate is not debatable, a two-thirds vote is required. Only the assembly decides when to end debate.
MYTH: “LAY ON THE TABLE” GETS RID OF STICKY ISSUES.
MYTH: THE CHAIR RUNS THE MEETINGS.
During a meeting any member can raise a “Point of Order” if it is believed that the rules of the assembly are being violated. This motion can interrupt a speaker and does not require a second. For example:
The Chair must now rule on the Point of Order. If the Chair doesn’t know how to rule, the question can be submitted to the assembly for a vote.
If a member is not happy with the Chair’s ruling, any two members can Appeal from the decision of the chair. By one member making and another members seconding the Appeal, any question of parliamentary law can be taken from the chair and given to the assembly for decision. The assembly is the ultimate decider of procedural questions during a meeting.
Jim Slaughter is an attorney, Certified Professional Parliamentarian, Professional Registered Parliamentarian, and past President of the American College of Parliamentary Lawyers. He is author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Parliamentary Procedure Fast-Track and lead author of Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules, Fourth Edition.
Updated and reprinted with permission from "Meeting Myth-Understandings"in the Community Association Institute's Common Ground magazine, Jan/Fed 2003 issue
Charts and articles are intended to provide general information on parliamentary procedure and are not legal advice or a legal opinion.