Point of order point of contention in Roberts vs Rosenberg rules of order

by Dan Blackburn

Hermosa Beach city council members will consider changing the rules by which their public meetings are governed.

The proposal to change the current parliamentary structure, which emerged from a recent council retreat, would scrub Robert’s Rules of Order, a guiding publication that has laid out procedural rules for the last 146 years. It outlines how tax-supported and non-profit governing agencies conduct meetings and interface with members of the public.

A much more concise structure, Rosenberg’s Rules of Order, is rapidly gaining favor among California entities, and is the version being eyed by the Hermosa Beach council.

The original Robert’s is 716 pages long, and delves with excruciating detail into the intricacies, niceties, and necessities of running a meeting. A revised version of 179 pages was published in 1989.

By contrast, Rosenberg’s version is only 10 pages in its entirety, which may help explain its growing popularity with elected officials.

Mary Macfarlane is co-founder of Jurassic Parliament, a Seattle-based business providing information, training, and resources to “help governing bodies run effective and fair meetings.

She sees flaws in Rosenberg’s abbreviated version that she fears might prove problematic:

“Rosenberg’s provides too many opportunities for members to interrupt each other,” Macfarlane told ER, “and for the chairperson to take control away from members of the body. It’s so important for city councils and school boards to run respectful and efficient meetings.”

Her website points out that courts have determined that public bodies and nonprofit boards need to adhere to certain key principles:

“They are not free to do whatever they like in their meetings. It is essential for elected officials to serve the public rather than themselves and to carry out duties in a way that is beyond reproach.”

According to the League of California Cities website, which explains Rosenberg’s parliamentary rules, “They have been simplified for smaller governing bodies and slimmed down for the 21st century, while retaining the basic tenets of order.” 

The League does not recommend one set of rules over the other, according to spokeswoman Kayla Sherwood.                 

David Rosenberg, author of the short rules version, is a longtime California Superior Court judge in Yolo County. He previously was a city council member and county supervisor, which he says gave him experience running board meetings.

“Twenty years ago I started teaching a workshop I called Rosenberg’s Rules of Order,” he says during an hour-long video for city, county, school officials and others. He said he thought a shorter version would be more digestible.

His hope is “that people can learn and appreciate not only how to run a meeting but how to make a meeting very understandable, very user friendly, not only to members of the body but also to members of the public.”

Rosenberg defends his shorter version because it “makes clear the rules. If rules are not clear, we wind up with two classes of people, those who know the rules and can follow the process and those who aren’t aware of the rules or don’t know the rules and are kind of left out of the process.”

Under Rosenberg, Macfarlane notes “a major flaw” in that a chairperson “has discretion in several matters which Robert leaves to the body as a whole, which is more democratic.”

Macfarlane’s organization points out these “significant differences” in the two rules books:

— Rosenberg gives too much importance and latitude to “substitute motions.” This could be very confusing for the body. Jurassic Parliament recommends against the widespread use of substitute motions. Better to defeat a motion and then propose a new one;

— Rosenberg approves the common usage of “friendly amendment.” This goes against the principle that a motion, once made, seconded and stated by the chair, belongs to the body as a whole. The maker and seconder should not have the right to accept an amendment during discussion;

— Rosenberg allows members of the body to interrupt debate and withdraw a motion unilaterally. This is disruptive and undemocratic;

— In Rosenberg, only three motions may be on the floor at the same time. This greatly restricts the number of actions a body may take;

— Robert’s provides information on many motions, situations and issues in its 716 pages that are not covered in Rosenberg’s 10 pages.

In 2005, the Robert’s Rules Association published an official, concise guide, titled “Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised in Brief.” Its third edition was published in 2020. ER



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