In a democratic society, we hold dear many principles of conduct and self-government. When people come together in their organizations and governments to conduct business, certain rules, referred to collectively as parliamentary procedure, must be applied correctly to maintain these democratic principles.
Organization members commonly make two mistakes: They do not know parliamentary procedure at all, and/or they misapply it because they don't understand the underlying democratic principles or they want to manipulate them. These mistakes invariably lead to confusion and, in the worst cases, can result in intimidation and the loss of members' rights. This chapter describes the fundamental democratic principles from which parliamentary procedure emerges and explains how these principles affect and apply to the structure of an organization. Parliamentary procedure is defined, followed by a discussion of its importance and application in protecting basic democratic principles. All members and their organizations must understand these principles to ensure the preservation of the democratic process.
There are basically two ways to structure an organization. One way is based on the authoritarian model, which favors the concentration of power in a leader or a small group of people who may or may not be responsible to the members. In the extreme form of this model, one person or a small group (such as a board of directors) may make all the decisions with no input or final approval from the membership.
The second way to structure an organization is based on the democratic model, which means that the people or the members govern. In the extreme form of this model, the members, not elected representatives, make all decisions. However, in most organizations, there is an agreed upon balance of power achieved between members and the officers they elect.
The democratic style of government is founded upon laws and the rights and responsibilities of all the members, not the whims of an unaccountable leadership. Abraham Lincoln defined democratic government as "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." An organization that has no rules or governing documents to establish a course of action eventually finds itself in a state of anarchy. In the words of Henry M. Robert, who wrote what we know today as Robert's Rules of Order, "Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty."
For an organization to survive and grow, the democratic model has proved to be the best form of government because it makes use of the talents and abilities of all the members. Organizations are democratic to the extent that they conform in the following ways:
The members rule through a decision-making process that they've established by a vote. The organization's governing documents - its constitution, bylaws, rules of order, standing rules, policy statements, and parliamentary authority (such as Robert's Rules of Order) - embody this process. This is government by the consent of the governed.
Ideas come from the members and are presented to the assembly to decide upon. Everyone gets the right to present, speak to, and vote on ideas.
Leaders come from the people through an election process. When a leader's term of office ends, he or she returns to the people. A hierarchy of power doesn't exist; it is shared equally. All members have the right to be considered for office.
Checks and balances between the leadership and the members are established in the governing documents. As an example of checks and balances, officers and boards of directors have only the power that the governing documents assign to them. Those powers not specifically given to officers and boards in the bylaws enable members to reverse decisions made by boards and officers. For example, if the bylaws do not say that the board or officers can set dues, and the board votes do this, then the members can rescind the action. Another check and balance that the bylaws give is the right of the membership to remove ineffective or tyrannical leaders from office.
All members are equal - they have equal rights and responsibilities.
The organization is run with impartiality and fairness. Law and enactment rule the organization, not the whims of the leadership. The rules are applied equally, impartially, and fairly to all and not just a select few.
There is equal justice under the law; members and officers have a right to a fair trial if accused. Written procedures exist for removing and replacing an officer when the officer doesn't fulfill his or her duties.
The majority rules, but the rights of the minority and absent members are protected.
Everything is accomplished in the spirit of openness, not secrecy. Members have the right to know what is going on within the organization by attending meetings, inspecting the official records, and receiving notices and reports from committees, officers, and boards.
Members have the right to resign from office or from the organization.
Governing documents should clearly state the rights and obligations of members and officers. These documents consist of the corporate charter (if there is one), which is issued by the state for incorporation, bylaws (or the organization's constitution), and any rules of order (parliamentary rules) or standing rules (administrative rules). Each organization should adopt a parliamentary authority, which is a book of common parliamentary law that details the rules for conducting meetings, electing officers, and making and adopting motions. All members are entitled to have a copy of their governing rules.
For a democracy to succeed, the members must work harmoniously together. To accomplish this, each member must know the purpose and goals of the organization, its rules, the rights of each individual member, and what each member is expected to do. One of the greatest threats to a democratic organization is for the members to become apathetic and let a small group of the membership do all the work. This creates divisions and promotes authoritarianism. Another threat is for a small group to work secretly behind the scenes to accomplish its own goals or its own agenda and then push it through without the rest of the membership having an input either through discussion or through the investigative process. Such actions cause mistrust and hostility.
If the principles of democracy are not upheld in the organization, knowing and following the rules of parliamentary procedure is valueless.
Parliamentary procedure enables members to take care of business in an efficient manner and to maintain order while business is conducted. It ensures that everyone gets the right to speak and vote. Parliamentary procedure takes up business one item at a time and promotes courtesy, justice, and impartiality. It ensures the rule of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority and absent members. Adhering to parliamentary procedure is democracy in action.
The procedures, or rules, are found in the organization's bylaws, in its standing rules, and in its adopted parliamentary authority. A parliamentary authority is a reference book that helps the members decide what to do when the group has no written rules concerning how certain things are done. You could adopt this resource as a parliamentary authority.
Parliamentary procedures provide proven, time-tested ways of determining action and carrying on an organization's business. One frequently asked question is, "Why do I need to know these parliamentary rules - what difference do they make?" You might compare knowing parliamentary procedures with knowing the rules of the road. Because you've learned the rules of driving, you know which side of the road to drive on, who has the right of way at street corners, who goes first at a four-way stop, and the rules of turning left in front of oncoming traffic. Obeying the rules of the road keeps traffic flowing smoothly and prevents accidents from happening. When everyone knows the parliamentary rules, meetings run smoothly, and the head-on collisions that can happen during the discussion of controversial motions can be prevented. If everyone in your group learns the basics of parliamentary procedure, you'll have more productive meetings: More members will make and discuss motions, and more members will be willing to serve as officers and committee chairmen.
Before learning the specific rules, everyone needs to know three fundamental principles of democracy and parliamentary procedure. If you can remember these principles, you'll be able to solve problems that come up in your organization and meetings, even if you can't remember the specific rules:
Take up business one item at a time. Doing so maintains order, expedites business, and accomplishes the purpose of the organization.
Promote courtesy, justice, impartiality, and equality. This ensures that everyone is heard, that members treat each other with courtesy, that everyone has the same rights, and that no individual or special group is singled out for special favors.
The majority rules, but the rights of individual, minority, and absent members are protected.
This principle ensures that, even though the majority rules, the minority has a right to be heard and its ideas are taken seriously. Similarly, the minority doesn't leave the organization because it didn't win; it knows that it may win another day. Following this principle preserves the unity and harmony of the organization.
The following sections explain the individual rules that support these three basic principles.
Like most people, members in a business meeting can do only one thing at a time. Therefore, the first principle of parliamentary procedure is that business is taken up one item at a time. The following rules support this principle:
Each meeting follows an order of business called an agenda. Everything on the agenda is reviewed in its proper order and disposed of before members go on to the next item on the agenda.
Only one main motion can be pending at a time.
When a main motion is pending, members can make motions from a class of motions called secondary motions. When secondary motions are taken up, they take precedence over the main motion. Discussion must focus on the secondary motion until it is resolved or temporarily disposed of. Some examples of secondary motions are to amend, refer to a committee, and postpone a main motion (see Chapter 6).
Only one member can be assigned the floor at a time.
Members take turns speaking.
No member speaks twice about a motion until all members have had the opportunity to speak.
As children, we're taught how to be courteous toward others. In our daily dealings and meetings with other people, courtesies are the necessities of life that promote harmony and unity. Here are ways to apply courtesy during meetings:
The chair or presiding officer calls the meeting to order on time. This shows courtesy to the members present. They shouldn't have to wait for the latecomers to arrive.
Members take their seats promptly when the chair calls the meeting to order, and conversation stops.
Those members giving reports during the meeting take seats in front. Doing so saves time.
Members rise to be recognized by the presiding officer and don't speak out of turn.
Members always refer to other members and officers in the third person. Refer to officers by their title; for example, Mr. President or Madam President, Mr. Chairman or Madam Chairman. Members refer to each other by saying, for example, "the previous speaker" or "the delegate from District 2." This prevents personalizing the debate and, in a worst case scenario, name-calling or personal attacks.
In debate, members do not cross talk, or talk directly to each other, when another member is speaking. All remarks are made through and to the chair.
Members keep discussion to the issues, not to personalities or other members' motives.
When correcting a member, the presiding officer doesn't use the member's name. Instead, he or she states, "Will the speaker keep his (or her) remarks to the issue at hand?" Or, if a motion is out of order, the chair states, "The motion is out of order," not "The member is out of order." (To tell a member that he or she is out of order is technically charging the member with an offense.)
Members speak clearly and loudly so all can hear. Members can use a microphone if one is provided.
Members listen when others are speaking.
Here is how justice, impartiality, and equality operate in meetings:
The presiding officer doesn't take sides but allows all to be heard equally in debate. If the presiding officer wants to voice an opinion about the issue under discussion, the presiding officer relinquishes the chair to another officer so that he or she can speak and vote.
The presiding officer and members should know the rules and apply them judiciously. Correct only major infractions. If members' rights aren't being taken away and an infraction is minor, raising a point of order to correct the infraction isn't necessary.
The presiding officer ensures that all sides of an issue are heard and that the rules of debate are carefully followed. These measures prevent a small group from railroading a motion through.
Members have the right to make a motion to take a vote by ballot during a controversial issue. A ballot vote preserves members' privacy and prevents possible retaliation for the way they voted.
Members have the right to a trial when they're accused of wrongdoing.
One of the most important rights that members have is the right to vote, knowing that the majority rules. At the same time, the majority never has the right to silence or take away rights from the minority, absent members, or individual members. Here's how this principle translates into action:
Members have the right to have notice of all meetings. The organization can give notice by mail, phone, electronic communication, or an announcement at a previous meeting.
Members have the right to know by previous notice when there is a proposal to rescind or amend something previously adopted.
In any situation where rights may be taken away from members, two-thirds of the membership must approve the motion (rather than a majority). Examples include amending the governing documents or removing someone from office or membership.
No one has the right to require a higher vote than a majority vote on issues unless the bylaws or the parliamentary authority specifically states that more than a majority is required.
Members have a right to be informed of the work of the organization. Reading the minutes of the prior meeting allows members to correct inaccurate information and informs the absent members of any action taken. Members have the right to hear reports of board action, committee work, and officers.