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Robert's Rules - Understanding the Basics

CHPPD’s September 10th webinar on “Using Robert’s Rules Successfully” was based on the information and tips below, provided by semi-professional Parliamentarian Karen Valenzuela, who, while not a formally certified parliamentarian, serves as parliamentarian to two organizations in her community, including her state affiliate. 


“Basically,” she said, “I wanted to speak to any of our Governing Councilors who were feeling somewhat befuddled or intimidated by the rules, motions, amendments, and voting that go on at Governing Council—and at other meetings they attend, for that matter.  People shouldn’t feel constrained to participate in the proceedings of a meeting because of lack of familiarity with Robert’s Rules of Order, which really are just a lot of common sense and not that complicated. Instead, she says, they’re a great set of rules which, when used appropriately, contribute to the smooth and orderly running of a meeting.  Her reference for the course was “Robert's Rules for Dummies,” by C. Alan Jennings.


The Basics:

Þ    Motions: These should be brief, single topic statements, as in:  “Mr. Chair, I move that we send $1000 to assist the victims of Katrina,” and then pause while the Chair awaits a second.  If there is no second, the motion dies.  If the motion is seconded, the Chair will intone, “It has been moved and seconded that we send $1000 to assist the victims of Katrina.” The Chair will then acknowledge the maker of the motion as the first speaker in favor of the motion.  If the Chair fails to do this, it is always in order for the maker of the motion to gently remind the Chair: “Madame Chair, if I may, speaking briefly to my motion, the intent here is to…”

Þ    Discussion:  Rise only to speak for or against the motion under consideration, not to ‘wonder about the wisdom of the idea’ or otherwise wander in the weeds, as it were. Finish your discussion by saying something like: “…and for all these reasons, I will be supporting this motion,” so that none of the listeners are left wondering about your intent.  An attentive Chair will then say, “Speaking in favor of the motion before us.  Further discussion?” while looking around expectantly.

Þ    Amendments:  Rise to move that the main motion be amended, for example, this way:  “Mr. Chair, while I agree that we should send money to the victims of Katrina, I believe the proposed amount would be of little help, so I move that we amend the main motion to send $10,000 to help the victims of Katrina rather than $1000.”  When the motion to amend has been seconded, discussion then ensues on the merits of sending $10,000 rather than $1000—that is, only on the amendment itself.  An amendment must be germane to the main motion.  Following discussion on the amendment, the Chair will call for a vote on the amendment, then return to discussion of and voting on the main motion to send money (now $10,000, if the amendment passes) to help the victims of Katrina.

Þ    Voting:  In the above example, if you favored sending $1000 to Katrina victims, not $10,000, you would not only speak and vote against the amendment, you could then also vote against the main motion if the amendment passed, since the effect of the amendment would be to send $10,000 rather than $1000 to Katrina victims.  If you felt strongly, however, that some money should be sent to Katrina victims, immediately on failure of the main motion to send $10,000 to Katrina victims, you could raise your hand and, upon being acknowledged by the Chair, may say:  “Madame Chair, while I spoke against and voted against sending $10,000 to Katrina victims, I did so on the basis that sending that much would deplete our bank account completely.  Because I believe that most of us in this room feel strongly that we would like to help in some way, I move that we consider sending $2000 to help Katrina victims.”  After a second, discussion would then ensue on sending $2000.  Finally, an important aspect of voting is, of course, the outcome: if a voice vote on a motion has been taken and it’s not immediately clear which side prevailed, it’s always in order for any voting member present to request a ‘Division,’ which compels the Chair to ask for a hand vote to verify the original vote.


Karen’s Pet Peeves (collected over her years of attending and chairing meetings):

Þ    Speaking before you have been acknowledged by the Chair.

Þ    Making multi-topic, paragraph-long motions.

Þ    Speaking during discussion on something other than the motion or amendment on the floor.

Þ    Making a motion when there’s already one on the floor.

Þ    A Chair who immediately calls for a vote following the making and seconding of a motion.  It is always in order to raise a ‘Point of Order,’ as in: “Mr. Chair, I believe members of the body would like the opportunity to discuss the motion before voting!”  The Chair’s role is to encourage thorough debate on a motion.  In turn, members are obligated to fully consider a motion before adopting or rejecting it.

Þ    A Chair who says simply “All in favor,” rather than repeating the motion on the floor before calling for the vote.  It is always in order to request the Chair repeat the motion about to be voted on, and it is always in order for the Chair to seek assistance from the maker of the motion in restating the motion.  Members have an obligation to fully understand what it is they are voting on.

Þ    A motion to amend the motion on the floor that would have the effect of nullifying the main motion.  Never in order!  The speaker must instead content himself to speaking against the main motion.

Þ    Yelling out ‘call the question.’  Never in order!  While common at some meetings, this is actually a misuse of a motion to close debate on a motion on the floor and should be used very rarely.  The correct statement of the motion, once you’ve been acknowledged by the Chair, is “Madame Chair, I move the previous question.”  It is a motion that requires a second, is not debatable, and needs a two-thirds vote to pass.  Its effect, if it passes, is to immediately compel the vote on whatever motion is on the floor.  Again, this should be used only very rarely because it interferes with an organization’s right and responsibility to thoroughly debate an issue before voting on it.  Best is to let the Chair chair the meeting; when he or she senses debate is coming to a close, or that everyone has had the chance to speak, he or she can gently prod the group to ready themselves for a vote with something like:  “I’m sensing we’ve all spoken our peace, so if there’s no further discussion, let’s move to a vote.”  If you see the Chair isn’t apt to do this, a much preferable motion would be:  “Mr. Chair, I move we limit further debate on this issue to ten minutes.”  This motion also requires a second, is not debatable and requires a two-thirds vote.


How It Works in Governing Council:

Þ    Go to the nearest microphone if you would like to speak: if you want to speak for or against a motion on the floor, if you want to amend a motion under discussion, if you want to request an item of new business be put on the agenda, and if you want to express a point of personal privilege (e.g., “Madame Speaker, the room is uncomfortably cold to many of us, could we request the heat be turned up,” or “Madame Speaker, those of us sitting in the back are unable to hear you because the room is too noisy”) or a point of information (e.g., “Madame Speaker, could you clarify the effect of the vote just taken?”).  If you’re standing at one of the microphones and the Speaker doesn’t acknowledge you, tap on it lightly to get her attention.  She’ll acknowledge you by saying “Microphone # 4,” at which point you begin speaking, always by first identifying yourself this way:  Karen Valenzuela, CHPPD Section (that is, stating your position on the Governing Council).

Þ    Voting is usually done electronically; that is, you press 1 for ‘yes’ and 2 for ‘no’ (or whatever the instructions are) on the electronic voting device APHA staff give you when you are credentialed for a particular session of Governing Council.  If you have to leave a Governing Council session for a short period of time, you can ask a seat-mate to press the appropriate number on your device if voting takes place in your absence, but if you’re going to be absent for an entire session, you’ll need to get a proxy for that session.  For more on this, refer to Shari Kinney’s 9/02/08 e-mail to CHPPD Governing Councilors.

Fortunately, the first or second page in your Governing Council notebook that you’ll soon be receiving from APHA is ‘Parliamentary Procedure at a Glance.’  Reviewing it prior to arriving at the annual meeting will go a long way toward preparing you for what awaits you once you’re there.