Tuesday night the Delta Junction City Council decided to adopt Robert’s Rules of Order for the conduct of their meetings. Something that is long overdue, but does it matter what rules of order they have?
My experience attending numerous council meetings says no. Although they adopt and somewhat follow an agenda, the topic of conservation on each agenda item is essentially wide open. For example, at Tuesday night’s meeting, while discussing approval of the minutes, one council member spent several minutes discussing one of the topics from the last meeting, not the correctness of the minutes. This occurs regularly by the same council member, yet the presiding officer does nothing to control the conservation.
One council member often makes personal comments about the fitness of individuals or agencies within other government structures. Not only are the remarks inappropriate, they are completely out of line within the scope of the topic of conversation. One recent comment centered around the fitness of staff within the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, while the topic of conservation was the proposed expansion of the state’s gravel pit near Jarvis Creek.
Speaking of conversation, the council generally has lots of conversations during its meetings, and I mean conversations. Sometimes two or three at the same time. During a recent meeting, a local resident spoke about a request they needed to submit to subdivide a lot. The city’s policy is to submit such a request to city staff for review before it comes to the council – there is a checklist to go through. Although this had not happened, the council spent 20 minutes on the topic, including one point where the mayor, city administrator, and the resident were looking at a map to locate the property while other council members were discussing the history of subdividing lots.
The purpose of rules of parliamentary procedure, according to a publication by San Diego State University, is to, “[f]acilitate the transaction of business and expedite meeting,” along with ensuring majority rule, protecting the rights of the minority, and providing “order, fairness and decorum.”
The publication further states the role of the presiding officer is to, “[r]emain impartial during debate” and relinquish the chair in order to debate the merits of a motion, recognize speakers, keep discussion germane to the pending motion, and maintain order.
I, for one, will be watching to see if the council can even follow two of the basic premises of Robert’s Rules: First, with exception of reports, which are not debatable, will topics only be discussed that have first had a proper motion and second? And second, will debate be conducted with comments being made after the council member is recognized by the chair?
Last year the mayor attempted to improve the conduct of council meetings by moving reports from council members to end of the meeting. For a meeting or two, it had some impact, but council meetings generally run over two hours, with only a handful of items actually coming to a vote. This week’s meeting appeared to have six votes, including the agenda, minutes, and adjournment, and lasted almost three hours.
It is incumbent upon both the presiding officer of the council and all council members to become familiar with the basic principles of Robert’s Rules to assure the proper conduct of the meetings. Each person at the meeting has a role, and the proper conduct of the meeting is the role of everyone participating.
There are many other pieces to Robert’s Rules, and following them too strictly can stifle a meeting, but they certainly can improve the conduct of a meeting so that both the meeting participants and those observing the meeting are sure of the topic being discussed.