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Meeting Derailed! Robert’s Rules For Dummies®, 2nd Edition Reveals Some Common Myths About Proper Meeting Procedures

If you are a member of any organization—from a school board to civic group to trade association—you know meetings can be, well, frustrating. Or unproductive. Or combative. Or (yawn) boring. Supposedly, you’re following Robert’s Rules of Order, which are meant to keep meetings orderly and protect everyone’s rights. Still, when Billy Bully tries to dominate the meeting, or Polly Prevaricator starts talking in circles, or Susie Suggester keeps bringing up just “one more idea” after the vote has taken place, you can’t help but feel that something isn’t working.

Guess what? The problem isn’t that Robert’s Rules don’t work. It’s that people don’t really understand them. If you’ve been conducting meetings based on what you assume or have heard is true about Robert’s Rules, never fear: For Dummies® can help you understand the right way to proceed in commonly mishandled situations.

“In my experience, most members and presiding officers really do have an interest in conducting business according to Robert’s Rules,” says C. Alan Jennings, a Professionally Registered Parliamentarian and author of Robert’s Rules For Dummies®, 2nd Edition (Wiley, July 2012, ISBN: 978-1-1182-9404-8, $18.99). “The real trouble is that, more often than not, they’ve never actually read Robert’s Rules—or even a book about Robert’s Rules.

“When you haven’t read the rules, but instead just operate based on what you’ve heard are the rules, you unknowingly help to create or strengthen a procedure myth,” Jennings continues. “Unfortunately, Robert’s Rules is often misinterpreted, and a lot of common meeting procedure myths are floating around.”

It’s time to dispel the myths and reveal why some things really need to be done a certain way. If your goal is to have good meetings and avoid wasting time, then read on for ten (or so) myths that might currently be holding your group back:

Myth #1: Robert’s Rules is just a guide you don’t have to follow. Most people who say this simply don’t know the truth; only rarely are they trying to manipulate the organization or take advantage of members who aren’t familiar with the rules. But here’s the bottom line: If your bylaws provide that Robert’s Rules is your parliamentary authority, then the rules are binding on your group, insofar as they don’t conflict with the bylaws or special rules of order the organization adopts.

“With all its ‘should’ rules, Robert’s Rules offers members and leaders alike plenty of advice and solid recommendations based on common sense and logic,” shares Jennings. “But as helpful as it is as a guide, when you’ve adopted it, Robert’s Rules is the definitive authority for decisions on parliamentary procedure, and it’s as enforceable as you care to make it.”

Myth #2: Only one motion can be on the floor at a time. Robert’s Rules establishes that it’s a fundamental principle of parliamentary law that only “one question can be considered at a time.” Jennings isn’t arguing. However, the myth arises because the actual rule is often misstated. Several pending motions can actually be on the floor at one time when you include any secondary motions that may be made during the handling of a main motion.

For example, imagine that a motion is made to hire a management company to handle your condo association’s business dealings and physical building maintenance. A member then moves to amend the motion in some way. While the amendment is being discussed, someone moves to refer the motion with the amendment to a committee to report back next month. While the motion to refer is being discussed, someone moves to limit the debate on the motion to commit to ten more minutes and then take a vote.

“Your parliamentary situation is that you have four motions pending, or on the floor, at one time,” explains Jennings. “But you can consider only one question at a time. Remember, many pending motions can stack up during the course of a discussion, but only one question can be considered at a time. It is known as the immediately pending question.

Myth #3: The presiding officer can vote only to break a tie. This popular myth, and its variation that the chair must vote to break a tie, are more common than ants at a picnic. And it’s simply not so!

“Robert’s Rules says that the presiding officer (if a member) votes with the other members when a vote is by ballot,” clarifies Jennings. “For other forms of voting, though, the chair’s duty to maintain the appearance of impartiality while presiding requires him to refrain from voting, except when his vote will affect the result. Of course, these are only general rules. You’ll need to refer to Robert’s Rules to learn what to do when voting by ballot for an election and the result is a tie, for instance—and for many other specific situations.”

Myth #4: The parliamentarian makes rulings. Some presiding officers like to pass the buck when it comes to handling points of order and parliamentary inquiries. They say things like, “The parliamentarian just ruled that …” or “The parliamentarian says you can’t [or can] do such-and-such.” However, a presiding officer who knows her stuff assumes the responsibility incumbent upon her after consulting with and paying heed to the parliamentarian’s opinions on matters of procedure.

“The parliamentarian’s job is to advise the presiding officer and give an opinion when asked,” clarifies Jennings. “But the sole responsibility for ruling on a point of order or answering a parliamentary inquiry lies with the chair.”

Myth #5: A motion not seconded is void. The purpose of the requirement for a motion to be seconded is to avoid wasting your group’s time on a motion that no one other than the person who makes the motion wants to discuss. If the members debate an unseconded motion, vote on an unseconded motion without debating it, or adopt it by unanimous consent, the motion is adopted, being presumed to have a second because members discussed it or acted upon it.

“A point of order that a motion is not in order for lack of a second must be made before any discussion or vote takes place on the motion,” adds Jennings.

Myth #6: Abstentions count as yes (or no) votes. One of the most frequent questions asked of parliamentarians is “How do we count abstentions?” The answer is simple: You don’t. Abstentions are not votes. They’re instances of members choosing not to vote.

“Depending on the circumstances, an abstention may ‘help’ one side and hurt another,” Jennings admits. “But technically, even though the abstention affects the outcome, it doesn’t count toward a certain side. And one other point: since every member has the right to remain neutral on a particular question, requiring a motion to be decided based on the number of members present usually isn’t a good idea; this arrangement denies a member the right to be neutral on the question.”

Myth #7: The chair must ask for unfinished business. Unfinished business is business brought over from an earlier meeting. It consists of motions not finally disposed of, perhaps postponed from the prior meeting or pending when the meeting adjourned. As a class of business, its items are determined based on what happened at the prior meeting. Unfinished business isn’t the place for members to bring up old ideas that never took off.

“The presiding officer and the secretary aren’t doing their jobs if neither knows whether the group has any unfinished business,” says Jennings. “If the presiding officer does know, she needs to announce the first item in the class as soon as the meeting reaches the point in the order of business when unfinished business is addressed.”

Myth #8: The chair must call for nominations three times. This myth seems to have a life of its own, like some kind of urban legend. And while the logic of calling for nominations more than once, or even twice, is reasonable (and certainly not a bad policy), it isn’t a rule.

“The motion to close nominations is never in order as long as anyone wants to make a nomination,” shares Jennings. “In fact, the motion is rarely even necessary. Upon determining that no further nominations are forthcoming from the members, the chair simply declares nominations closed.”

Myth #9: If the winner doesn’t serve, second place can take over. This myth is one of those misconceptions that sounds reasonable until you give it some thought. The second-place candidate is either the loser of a two-candidate race or one of several people the members rejected in favor of someone else. In the first situation, the candidate was rejected outright; in the second situation, no one knows how the members would’ve voted had the original winner not been on the ballot. You can’t assume that the second-place candidate would have been the winner if all the members who voted for the actual winner had voted for someone else.

“Sorry, but if the winner declines the office after being elected, you have what Robert’s Rules calls an incomplete election,” asserts Jennings. “To resolve the incomplete election, you need to reopen nominations and vote again. If the winner fails to serve out the term of office, you’re left with a vacancy, and you need to follow the rules in your bylaws for filling the vacancy.”

Myth #10: Officers must be members. If your organization follows this policy, it’s not because of anything in Robert’s Rules. The only way you can properly put a limitation on who to elect is to establish that qualification in the bylaws. If you don’t have this kind of limitation, however, Robert’s Rules recognizes the complete autonomy of a membership body to select anyone it wants to serve as an officer.

“Organizations frequently rely on nonmember officers,” points out Jennings. “A treasurer may be an accountant who’s not a member but who does the organization’s bookkeeping. Similarly, a secretary (or even the president/CEO) may be an employee of the organization but not a member.”

Myth #11: Ex officio members can’t vote. Now that’s just plain silly. Of course they can vote! They’re members, aren’t they? Ex officio simply refers to how they came to be a member: They hold membership by virtue of some office.

“Members can always vote, no matter how they come to be a member, unless some concrete rule specific to your group restricts the voting rights of a particular class of members,” reiterates Jennings.

Myth #12: Motions don’t take effect until minutes are approved. If this statement were true, you could never even have approved minutes, because minutes of one meeting wouldn’t be officially approved until the minutes of the meeting in which they were approved got approved, and those minutes wouldn’t be approved until the next meeting, and so on. You’d have a never-ending wait for approved minutes.

“Motions are in effect upon adoption, unless the motion provides for some other effective date,” says Jennings. “The fact that minutes aren’t yet approved has nothing to do with whether a motion is in effect. Approving minutes approves only the record of the adoption of the motion, not the motion itself.”

“Ultimately, if you want to do things ‘by the book,’ you have to know what the book says!” concludes Jennings. “So don’t rely on what you’ve been told or what you think you know. Get the right book and read it before you start pontificating about procedure.”