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Robert's Rules for Dummies
By C. Allan Jennings, Professional Registered Parliamentarian
Background:  David Del Monte (NYC Club) and I were talking about parliamentary procedure, and how both of us are sometimes frustrated by meetings that aren't run as well as they should be.  We thought that club presidents should learn about Robert's Rules of Order before they run their first Board meeting. David mentioned the "Dummies" book, which I have never seen, and then he sent me these 3 articles.

I enjoyed reading the articles so much that I decided to excerpt them and put them here on the website to share with others. This page has my edited versions, presumably from Mr. Jennings' book (I don't know for sure) -- they're fun to read and very informative. The three chapters are:

Ten (Or So) Meeting Procedure Myths

Most presiding officers really do have an interest in doing things according to Robert's Rules. But, more often than not, they're never read Robert's rules.  Unfortunately, Robert's Rules are often misinterpreted, and a lot of common meeting procedure myths are floating around out there. It's time to dispel the myths and reveal why some things really should be done a certain way. If your goal is to have good meetings and avoid wasting time, you'll be glad you read about these ten (or so) myths, and you'll see how things actually should be done according to Robert's Rules.

Myth 1: Robert's Rules are Just a Guide: You Don't Have to Follow Them

Robert's Rules contains a lot of guidance. With all its "should" rules, it offers members and leaders alike plenty of advice and solid recommendations based on common sense and logic. 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." You can only consider one question at a time. 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, a motion is made to hire an event management company to handle your club's gala fundraiser. 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 only ten more minutes and then take a vote. Your parliamentary situation now: you have four motions on the floor. But you can only consider one question at a time. In this case, you take up the question whether to limit debate, and decide it before you get back to the motion to refer. You consider the question whether to refer; then, if it fails, you go back to consideration of the amendment. After you decide the question on the amendment, you're again able to consider the original main motion.

Myth 3: The Presiding Officer Can Only Vote to Break a Tie

This popular myth is simply wrong! Robert's Rules say that the presiding officer (if a member) votes with the other members when a vote is by ballot; but for other forms of voting, the chair's duty to maintain the appearance of impartiality requires him to refrain from voting, except when his vote will affect the result.

Wherever a majority vote is required to adopt a motion, a tie vote is decisive because a motion that fails to achieve the majority does not pass. So if the vote is tied, the presiding officer doesn't need to vote unless she wants the motion to be adopted. She can then vote in the affirmative, and the motion passes. Similarly, if the vote isn't tied but the Yeas outnumber the Nays by exactly one vote, then the chair doesn't need to vote unless she wants the motion to fail.

WARNING: The presiding officer does not get to cast a second vote after a tie ballot. If you're voting by ballot and the result is a tie, the motion fails.

Myth 4: The Parliamentarian Makes Rulings to Decide Procedural Questions

A presiding officer who knows her stuff stands in control of the meeting. She assumes the responsibility incumbent upon her after consulting with and paying heed to the parliamentarian's opinion on matters of procedure. The parliamentarian's job is to advise the presiding officer and give his opinion when asked. But the sole responsibility for ruling on a point of order or answering a parliamentary inquiry lies with the chair.

Myth 5: A Motion That's Adopted Without Being Seconded Is Void

The purpose of this requirement for a "second" 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. But if the members debate an unseconded motion, vote on the unseconded motion with 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. REMEMBER: A point of order that a motion lacks a second must be made before any discussion or vote takes place on the motion.

Myth 6: Absentions Count As Yes or No Votes

Abstentions are not votes. They're instances of members choosing not to vote. The confusion probably comes from the fact that voters who abstain typically do, by their abstention, influence the outcome of a vote. For example, if the requirement for adoption is a majority vote of members present, then abstentions have the same effect of voting Nay.

Myth 7: The Chair Should Always 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. It is a class of business, like "Old" and "New," and its agenda items are determined based on what happened at the prior meeting. REMEMBER: The presiding officer and the secretary aren't doing their jobs if neither knows whether the group has any unfinished business.

Myth 8: The Chair Must Call for Nominations from the Floor Three Times

It's very reasonable, and it's certainly not a bad policy, but it isn't a rule. The motion to close nominations is never in order as long as anyone whishes to make a nomination. In fact, the motion is rarely even necessary. The chair, upon determining there are no further nominations forthcoming from the members, simply declares nominations closed.

Myth 9: If an Election Winner Doesn't Serve, the Second-place Candidate Takes Over

If the winner declines the office after being elected, you have what Robert's Rules calls an incomplete election. To resolve the incomplete election, you need to reopen nominations and have another election.

If the winner fails to serve out his term of office, however, you're left with a vacancy, and you need to follow the rules in your bylaws for filling the vacancy. Depending on the particular office and your bylaws, you may have to hold another election, or your executive board may be able to appoint someone to fill the vacancy. If your bylaws say nothing about filling vacancies, you hold another election for the office.

Except when your bylaws provide expressly for filling a vacancy in the office of president, if your president dies or resigns, the vacancy actually occurs in the office of vice-president, who automatically becomes the president. You then fill the vacancy in the office of vice-president.

Myth 10: Officers Must Be Members of the Organization

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 by establishing the qualification in the bylaws. The standard Rotary Club constitution requires that each officer and director be a member in good standing of the club, so this is a moot point for Rotary.

Myth 11: Ex-officio Members Can't Vote

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 that's some concrete rule specific to your group that restricts the voting rights of a particular class of members.

Myth 12: Motions Don't Take Effect Until Minutes Are Approved

The way it really works is that motions are in effect upon adoption, unless the motion provides for some other effective date. The fact that minutes aren't yet approved has nothing to do with whether a motion is in effect. Approving minutes only approves the record of the adoption of the motion, not the motion itself.

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Ten Motion Mistakes to Avoid

Robert's Rules are rules designed to facilitate the transaction of business by your group, not to hinder it. Nitpicking on minor technicalities is against the rules. Robert's Rules warns that calling attention to purely technical errors when no one's rights are being violated is a mistake.

If you're going to be effective in meetings, you need to know the right -- and wrong -- ways to use parliamentary motions.

The list in this chapter is far from being exhaustive. The purpose of this list is to clue you in to the more frequent and obvious places where some members reveal their ignorance by trying to prove that they know so much.

Speaking without Recognition

First, and most importantly, just shouting out a motion is a mistake. Indeed, it's a mistake to make just about any motion without first being recognized by the chair. You've probably heard folks shout out motions at meetings. The world would be a calmer place if they would only learn a little meeting etiquette and refrain from calling out their motions (except for points of order) until they have the recognition of the chair.

Moving to Table

In just about every meeting I've attended lately, when anything controversial comes to the floor, somebody calls from their place "I move to table!" In addition to the offense of speaking without recognition, the member is misusing one motion in an attempt to accomplish something else: he wants to kill the motion. But a member doesn't kill a motion by moving to table it. The motion to table is actually the motion to Lay on the Table, and you use it to set a pending motion aside temporarily in order to take up something else more pressing or urgent. If you want to kill a motion, you move to "Postpone Indefinitely."

Calling the Question

Sometimes it is obvious that no one else wishes to speak, and the chair can simply say "If there's no one else who wishes to speak, then, without objection, we'll vote on the motion." But your presiding officer may prefer to take the opportunity to tell the members that calling the question actually requires a formal motion from a member after being recognized by the chair. It's the chair's job to offer the members the opportunity to vote when it's clear that no one else wishes to speak: calling out "Question" without first obtaining the floor is just plain rude.

Tabling It until Next Month

This attempt at a motion is yet another misuse of the word table. What the member who makes this proposal really wants to do is to Postpone to a Certain Time, not Lay on the Table. Why all this emphasis on the correct words if you know what the member is trying to accomplish? The reason has a lot to do with the order of precedence of these motions and the rules covering whether the motion is debatable, amendable, and so forth. A motion to lay on the table outranks the motion to postpone to a certain time. Lay on the table is neither debatable nor amendable (a motion's either going to be laid on the table or it's not). Postpone to a certain time is both amendable as to time and debatable as to whether to postpone. All these factors influence the decision to be made, and one of the chair's many duties is to make sure the question sought by the members is one put before the members.

Reconsidering a Vote

The motion to Reconsider is often a problem not because of the complexity of the motion itself, but because the word reconsider finds broad use outside its parliamentary context. Under Robert's Rules, however, reconsider is a specific parliamentary motion with a specific and limited application. Frequently, someone moves to reconsider a vote that was taken at a prior meeting. However, the correct motion in this case is either Rescind or Amend Something Previously Adopted, or simply renewing a motion that failed in an earlier meeting. The choice depends only on whether the motion you're trying (incorrectly) to reconsider passed or failed, respectively. Any member can move to rescind or amend something previously adopted, or renew a motion that failed (in a prior meeting) at a new meeting. When it comes to parliamentary usage, reconsider is something you can do only with respect to a decision made in the current meeting (or on the next day, if the session lasts more than one day).

Requesting a Point of Information

The big problem with this motion is that some people think it means they can get the floor to give information. Not so. A Point of Information is made to enable the member to request information, not to give him an opportunity to speak again!

Offering Friendly Amendments

General Robert never even used the term friendly amendment. It finally showed up in the current edition of Robert's Rules only to explain that it's not what everybody thinks it is. The term is often used as a means of asking permission of the motion's original maker to add the amendment. But the fact is, when a motion is on the floor, the maker of the motion no longer owns it. Whether or not the original mover accepts the amendment is of no consequence. Any motion to amend a main motion depends on the acceptance of the assembly, not the person who made the original motion.

Exception: If someone offers a friendly amendment before the chair states the motion and the mover accepts the change, the chair states the motion as changed and there's no need to vote on the so-called friendly amendment. It's part of the motion from the start.

Tip: Offering a friendly amendment is really patronizing. The best thing to do is to simply get recognition of the chair, move your amendment, and tell the members why you're offering the amendment.

Making Motions to Accept or Receive Reports

The belief that you need to do something official with a report presented to your group is pretty widespread. But, except in some specific situations (below), motions to accept or receive reports after they're presented shouldn't be entertained. Instead, the chair should simply thank the reporting member and go on to the next item of business. If anything besides "Thank you" needs to be said, stick to something like "The report requires no action. The next item of business is…" A written report can be acknowledged by the chair simply saying, "The report will be placed on file."

Sometimes, a report contains recommendations or suggestions for specific actions. In those cases, the presiding officer states the question on the motion that arises from the report, not on whether to adopt the recommendation contained in the report, and not on whether to receive, adopt, or accept the report. Remember: Reports are received when they're presented. A motion to receive them after the fact is superfluous.

The only situations in which it's proper to accept or adopt a report are when a particular body wishes to make a report its own and in the following situations.
  • When a board or committee wants to adopt a draft of its own report, which is prepared by members of the board or committee for the purpose of reporting to the general membership.
  • When the assembly wishes to endorse every word of a report, such as with:
    • An auditor's annual report of the financial records of the treasurer. Endorsement relieves the treasurer of further liability except in the case of fraud.
    • And a few others
Warning: Two situations when adopting or accepting a report is never proper are in the case of a Nominations Committee report, which is always followed by nominations from the floor, and a treasurer's report, which is always simply filed for audit.

Dispensing with the Minutes

You don't want to dispense with the minutes; you want to dispense with the reading of the minutes. In parliamentary terms, you make the correct version of this motion in order to enable your group to handle the approval of the minute at a later time, out of the regular order of things. It absolutely does not equate to approval of the minutes. Minutes must be approved in order to become the official record of the assembly's action. Dispense with their reading if you must, but ask for corrections and approve them at some point in order to have a complete and official record of your meetings.

Wasting Breath on "I so Move"

Oh, come on now! What is your motion? State it! When the presiding officer says "The chair will entertain a motion to take a recess," say "I move we take a recess for 10 minutes." If you just say "I so move," then you haven't actually made a motion. Think of it like this: The chair says, "Ms. Portulaca moves 'so.' All those in favor of 'so' say 'aye.' Opposed to 'so' say 'no.' The ayes have it, and we will 'so.'" Obviously, this doesn't make any sense because you need to know what "so" stands for, but this is what happens when you say, "I so move."

Remember: When you make a motion, propose your action as exactly and specifically as you can. Leave no doubt as to what it is you're asking the membership to agree upon.

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Ten Tips for Presiding Officers

Whether you're presiding over a meeting of 2,500 members or a small board or committee meeting, your job is the same when it comes to the goal of successfully managing a meeting. And to ensure that you manage successfully, here are some tips to help you establish yourself as a knowledgeable, well-organized and helpful leader.

Tip 1: Know Your Rules

One of the best ways to establish your credibility as a leader is to know your rules. If you don't, your members will know it. No feeling is quite as bad as standing in front of a room full of people who know more about your job than you do. For what it's worth, General Robert was in that position once, too. After his experience, he wrote a book on the rules! To avoid being caught unprepared, make sure you're well read on your group's charter, bylaws, special rules of order, and parliamentary authority. No one other than a person who has held your office before you (and your parliamentarian) should know as much about these rules as you do.

Tip 2: Plan Your Meetings

Nothing benefits you and your group as much as being prepared for your meetings. Planning your meeting in as much detail as possible assures the best chance of completing the agenda within the time available (or at least knowing if you need to hold an adjourned meeting to finish your business). The process of planning your meeting so that you can cover everything you need to cover is much easier if you follow the outline below:
  • Make it everybody's business to know the agenda. Use the minutes from the last meeting as your primary planning and management tool. Distribute the minutes and reports in advance of the meeting. The more everyone knows, the better you can budget your time.
  • Call on your officers and committee chairmen to submit their reports early.
  • Call on members to advise you of motions they intend to introduce, so you can put them on the agenda.
  • Read the reports so that you know what motions the committees will make, or what motions will be necessary to adopt recommendations.

Tip 3: Start Your Meetings On Time

People have busy schedules. Your time is valuable, but it is no more valuable than that of the members who have arrived on time and are ready to start at the appointed hour. Don't allow a few minutes past the scheduled time to accommodate members who are late. An effective presiding officer accommodates the members who arrive on time and insists that the habitual latecomers adjust to everyone else instead of everyone adjusting to them. Nothing you do commands the respect you must have as the chair as much as starting your meeting on time. Your members know you mean business, and that's fine, because that's what you're all there for.

Tip 4: Use Unanimous Consent

Unanimous consent is when the chair declares a motion to have passed without taking a vote and instead asks simply if there's any objection). Unanimous consent is a remarkable tool for handling any motion for which it's clear and obvious that the assembly's will is to pass the motion. The most recognizable situations where unanimous consent is used are the approval of minutes and adjourning a meeting. But unanimous consent is just as useful even if the question is on a bylaw amendment, as long as no opposition is apparent. Members rarely object to unanimous consent where they know that opposition is so minimal that it won't affect the outcome. If you ask for unanimous consent and a member objects, you simply take the vote. Otherwise, it's a great timesaver, and members really do respect presiding officers who know how to save time.

Tip 5: Use Committees

Encourage new proposals to be brought through your organization's committees. Members often have good ideas, but those ideas sometimes need some work before they're ready for a vote. Teaching your members how to take their ideas to committees can have great benefits for you and your organization. But members need to have confidence in their committees; willingness to help and assist them with their ideas. Remember: If your committees are set up well, everybody who‘s really interested tackles the discussion in the committee meetings, and the rest of the members know that the committee's recommendations are based on sound reason. But good committees go to waste without a strong leader to make efficient use of them – that's you.

Tip 6: Preside with Impartiality

Nobody expects you to actually be impartial. You were probably elected because you have an overall agenda and a program you hope to advance. But when you're presiding in your meeting, you must put your personal agenda aside and help the members make their decisions. You can't lose if you do this, because ultimately, the decision belongs to the majority anyway. So the presiding officer must leave any personal or political agendas to those others. As presiding officer, you really only control the floor (and you're expected to follow clear and definite rules about how the floor's assigned). Everything else is really in the members' hands. It's always in your best interest to be known as a leader who helps the minority to make its case – and to do so no matter how you personally feel about their position.

To preside with impartiality:
  • Don't enter into debate. When a member concludes his speech, don't rebut him, or argue with him, or explain why he's wrong. Say "Thank you," and recognize someone on the other side of the issue.
  • Don't gavel through motions. What clearer indication could there be that you don't have any respect for the opposition?
  • Don't vote (except by ballot) unless your vote will affect the result.
  • Don't refuse to recognize someone just because you don't want him to be heard. Instead, take extra care to assist all members in their efforts to be heard.

Tip 7: Never Give Up the Chair

Although this tip may sound like an elaboration on my previous tip to maintain the appearance of impartiality, it's a little more than that. No matter how strongly you feel about an issue, your job is to preside. Robert's Rules provides that if you can't preside impartially because you feel too strongly about an issue, you much step down and let someone else preside until the vote is taken. But I caution you to consider if giving up the chair is really wise. And, consider that the person who takes the chair may not gracefully return the position to you. That can get mighty uncomfortable. Take my advice: Don't give up the chair.

Tip 8: Don't Share Your Lectern

Put simply, never share your lectern with other speakers. Instead, provide a separate and distinct station for other officers and committee chairmen to use when giving their reports. During a business meeting, your duty requires that you're always in control of the floor, and you can't be in control of the floor if you can't use your station to address the assembly without moving somebody else out of the way. When officers and committee members make their reports, motions may arise and questions may come up. By having two lecterns, you can manage the discussion from the chair and the reporting member can remain available to respond to questions as the chair may request.

Remember: Members always address their remarks and comments to the chair, and the chair recognizes members to speak and as questions. It's your job and your station. Make the place from which you preside yours exclusively.

Tip 9: Keep Your Cool

Sometimes presiding over a meeting just isn't easy. When disorder erupts, no amount of hammering a wooden mallet on a sounding block is going to do anything but aggravate an already bad situation. When there are disorderly rants, you should calmly rap the gavel once and ask the member to come to order. If he ignores your request, the most effective thing you can do is to stand firmly at your station. Don't allow yourself to become engaged personally with the members. Instead, calmly entreat him to come to order. In extremely difficult situations -- when an entire assembly erupts in disorderly demonstration – it is usually due to perceptions that the chair is being partial to one side of the other. But whatever the reason, sometimes its just best to wait until the inevitable silence finally falls, and then ask for unanimous consent to a recess so that tempers may ease. If you make mistakes that give rise to disorder, meet with those members in a position to assist you in reestablishing the respect due to the chair so that the meeting either can continue or adjourn.

Tip 10: Use a Parliamentarian

In the world of Robert's Rules, you don't have to go it alone. No matter what size your organization may be, when you have problems or questions, you can seek out the services of a professional parliamentarian. Resources are available online to answer questions, and local units of parliamentarians exist all over the country. Remember: The parliamentarian's job is to make you look good in the chair, and nothing beats the confidence you feel if you have a parliamentarian there to advise and assist you.

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