June 20, 2012 | LXXII, No. 11

Little-known insights about ruling rules

In a flash of progressive openness (or an attempt to control discussion, depending on your perspective) the Electric City Council adopted new rules about how that legislative body’s meetings are conducted.

It’s a noble gesture, and perhaps a step in the right direction, but could be devastating to the newspaper business. If council leaders around here start following rules of discussion, they’ll probably cut back way too much on public gaffes, which would make things less interesting for reporters and their readers.

But relax, in my experience — 23 years of attending local government meetings — it’s never been done.

Oh, sure, they all profess to be guided by Robert’s Rules of Order, but none of them actually are. If they followed those rules, council meeting times would all be cut in half.

One of those rules, you see, says discussion on a motion should not be undertaken until a motion has been made and seconded. That way, if someone offers a motion that no one else thinks is a good idea, no one has to take time to discuss it. It’s dead. This forces back-room politicking up a notch, but from what we hear, that would pose no challenge for Electric City’s council members anyway and could only help local drinking establishments.

But what did Henry Martyn Robert know, anyway. His rules, first published in 1876, came about because he was embarrassed after having failed miserably at conducting a public meeting held in a church. The rules have only just been published in their 11th edition.

One provision of the city’s new rules is actually not new at all. The part that calls a council member’s failure to vote on a motion “malfeasance of office” is written in state statute. It’s against the law for someone occupying a seat on a city council to not vote when it comes time, and they can only “abstain” for a very few legitimate reasons, which must be stated. No cowardice allowed. Bravo for reinforcing that provision.

The part that demands that jeering be outlawed at council, on the other hand, would suggest Electric City will conduct itself with more decorum than the British Parliament. Kinda doubt that.

But good luck with the rest of it.

Scott Hunter

editor and publisher

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