How to Preside Without Being Overbearing – Part 6

How to Preside Without Being Overbearing

Part 6
Protecting Member’s Rights

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    Don't allow members to speak out of turn or more than the rules allow

    Debate requires a fair process. Part of that process is the limits of debate. For most organizations, the default of 10min/2x consumes too much time as even a small body of 10 people can speak for almost 3 hours if each uses their allotted time. One can easily see how allowing members to speak more than the rules allow would exacerbate the problem. But even when your debate limits are set lower by a “special rule”, it is important to stick to these limits. Any member speaking more often than others are allowed to is given an unfair advantage. Especially is this true when they speak 3 or 4 times in debate. The advantage of having multiple rebuttals is obvious.Many members get around this by making “points of personal privilege” or “points of information” over and over again to gain the floor and express their opinions on subjects or add more information to their side of the debate. I will be as clear as I can concerning these two abuses: they must be ruled out of order when used inappropriately. Many organizations have gotten into the custom of using these two motions incorrectly and it has resulted in a disorderly environment where members infringe on the rights of their fellow members.In a following post, I will go over the correct and incorrect use of these two motions so that all the chairs will have information that will better allow them to address these two problem areas.

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    Allow members the rights to which they are entitled

    Under no circumstances should a chair deny a member their rights, even if exercising them may make the chair’s job harder or the organizational drama-meter go up. Doing so is a great way to begin your path toward being removed as chair. So how do we avoid this?The first step in allowing members the rights to which they are entitled is for the chair to take the time to KNOW what member’s rights are. This extends from rules of debate, to motions they are entitled to but may not know about, placing items on the call, or even in handling disciplinary issues. As boring as it may be, taking time each week to go over a few sections of Robert’s Rules or your bylaws and making notes of what members can do and how will help you as a chair to help your members. At times, members may want to exercise rights that could be disruptive to the organization, such as calling a special meeting. A chair must balance the two competing needs and may need to explain to the member the consequences of their proposals/motions. If the matter is known ahead of a meeting, schedule time with the member to explain the situation, assess their goals, and discuss ways they can reach their goals in a more constructive way. If a particularly hairy motion comes up during a meeting, a good tactic is, before stating the question and opening debate, acknowledge that the motion is a big one and propose a recess so that you may speak with the maker of the motion and so members can have a little time to absorb the motion before entering into debate. When you come back to order, if you have been able to convince the member to take a different approach, they may retract their motion before the debate begins.

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    Always observe decorum

    The chair sets the tone for a meeting. When a chair is too casual, the body will often follow suit and this can lead to much time wasted or disregard for the rules to become commonplace. When a chair loses their composure during a heated moment, this can both cause the body to question the chair’s leadership and also set a precedent that, when things get hot, doing the same is an acceptable reaction. Observing decorum and setting a good example will always have good results.

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    Do not allow members to question another member's character or motives

    Robert’s Rules directs that all statements should be made to the chair, that names not be used (except when absolutely necessary) and that debate that questions the motives or calls into question the character of members should be ruled out of order. Allowing members to make personal attacks on other members can quickly spiral out of control and cause lasting damage to relationships within the body. When a member starts down this road, kindly interrupt and direct them to speak to the chair, keep their comments directed to the subject at hand and instruct them to refrain from making any statements personal. Explain that this will help prevent bruised feelings and help foster a more productive and constructive debate. If they persist, do not allow it to continue. Rule them out of order and move to the next speaker. This may appear heavy handed, but the serious consequences of allowing this to continue cannot be understated.

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    Do not be afraid to call an unruly member by name

    Here is the one time that it is appropriate to use a member’s name. When a general call for the “gentleman” or “gentlewoman” to come to order is not successful, calling them out by name such as “Mr. Smith, you have been reminded that you must be recognized before speaking before. Please join the other members in following the rules we’ve all agreed to and wait for your turn to speak.” If you’ve been consistent in not permitting members to address each other directly and been careful not to address members in a causal way, the use of a person’s name can be jarring, and intentionally so. This can often resolve any lingering issues as well as discourage other members from engaging in similar behavior.

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    Remember that Robert's is there to allow the minority to make their best case, but also to protect the majority

    The majority of any body has the right to conduct business without being unfairly delayed by dilatory motions or debate. While it is important to always allow the minority in any matter to have their voice heard, a chair must keep the meeting moving and prevent any small group from usurping the rules in an effort to delay action. Some common dilatory motions are: making a quorum call when there is an obvious quorum, asking for a “credentials report” ahead of a vote, conducting roll calls, making motions to table improperly, repeating debate points already made by others unnecessarily, etc. A chair well educated in their bylaws and Robert’s Rules of Order will be able to both recognize these situations and take prudent and fair steps to address them in a way that reinforces confidence in the chair. Never stop learning.

About the Author

Micah Rowland

Micah Rowland was elected Chair of the 21st Legislative District Democrats, Second Vice Chair of the Snohomish County Democrats, and First Vice Chair of the Washington State Democratic Chairs Organization in the 2017 reorganization. He is also a member of the National Association of Parliamentarians where he has attended training events at both the 2016 NTC and the 2017 Leadership Conference & Biennial Convention.