“Robert’s Rules of Order” may seem like an instantaneous knockout pill for some people, but for consultant Colette Collier Trohan, its practically the Bible for conducting fast, fair and proper meetings.
“Confusion is the absolute enemy,” said Trohan, who gave a lively primer on parliamentary procedure at the Vienna Town Council’s Nov. 9 work session. “Clarity is always the highest priority.”
The Town Council agreed to host Trohan’s training and refresher course at the suggestion Town Manager Mercury Payton and Human Resources Director Maggie Kain.
Council meetings frequently have dragged on in recent years and discussions sometimes have been fractious. Usage of a consent agenda to deal swiftly with minor items and the imposition of meeting time limits, unless the Council votes for extension, seem to have done little to quell the difficulties.
Trohan covered meeting basics from start to finish and some of her admonitions earned silent (we hope we were on mute!) hosannas, hallelujahs, amens and you-go-girls from those watching online. Among her exhortations:
• Meetings should have two-minute time limits for most speakers. This forces presenters to choose their words carefully and concisely and encourages those on the dais not to tune out.
“You get better attention from people because they know it’s going to end,” said Trohan, who is president of A Great Meeting Inc. “If you can’t make your point in two minutes, you can’t make it in 10.”
She also recommended using a timer with an insistent beeper or buzzer to let everyone, including oblivious speakers, know when the time limit has expired.
• Chairmen should use their gavel sparingly, such as to start and end the meeting, and not as a means of restoring order.
“If you have to bang the gavel, you’ve already lost control of the meeting,” she said, likening it to spanking those present. “It’s generally not well-received.”
• Know what constitutes a majority vote with the organization (hint: it’s not always defined as 51 percent) before polling members.
• Meeting chairs should try to rotate pro and con speakers during debates.
• Chairmen should resist the impulse to let people speak as soon as they raise their hands. Instead, the topic being discussed or sentence being spoken should be allowed to finish.
• Motions on the floor should be crafted exactly and clearly so members understand the matter on which they’re voting. One method that’s been gaining currency during the flood of online meetings in recent months is a computer program that allows motions’ language to be edited on the spot and projected for all to see.
• Motions should employ positive verbs to indicate the action being considered. If the body is preparing to vote against something, Trohan recommended using the verb “disapprove.”
• Organizations should know that when they accept a report, they’re endorsing it.
“Sometimes the best response is ‘Thank you,’” Trohan said.
• “Unanimous consent” is a more active term that means members agree; “general consent” means no one objects.
• Members should prepare thoroughly before meetings, pursue answers to their questions and know exactly what they want to say with their intended motions.
“One of the most awful things is watching someone try to give birth to a motion on the floor,” Trohan said.
• Members have a powerful right to stop a meeting in its tracks by raising a point of order, but chairmen may ignore them if they’re being dilatory. Trojan noted the Maryland license plate on her silver Toyota Highlander reads “PTOFRDR.”
• Friendly amendments – i.e., ones proffered by members that receive no objection from the motion’s maker – typically are well-meant, but only create confusion, Trohan said.
• Chairmen should try to create a safe atmosphere for all points of view to be expressed, but they should not be afraid to call a recess if matters become too tangled, she said.
• Members should put the organization’s or community’s interests above their own and avoid personal attacks in debates.
“It’s always about the issues, never about the person,” Trohan said.
The presentation seemed well-received, but some Council members who were watching from remote locations complained vociferously that not all of Trohan’s materials had been distributed in advance and that some of the PowerPoint slides being discussed were not being projected for online viewers. Trohan said there had been a mix-up and apologized for the misunderstanding, but to little avail.
Council member Nisha Patel steered the conversation out of the morass with a question pertaining to a hypothetical example involving a vote on buying roses for the parliamentarian.
“Thank you!” Trohan responded in a stage whisper.
Mayor Linda Colbert praised Trohan’s presentation and thanked her for sharing her knowledge.
“You’ve done a great job,” she said.
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