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Parliamentary Procedure/Agenda at a public meeting?


Hello and thank you for your help!

At my place of employment, we recently had a union meeting.
Such union meetings are announced well in advance, and only occur
once a semester (this is at a college).  Typical at these meetings
is where the latest union business is discussed and then the floor
is open for members to ask *any* union relevant questions or make

This past meeting, the union president only wanted to discuss the latest
contract negotiations and NOT anything related to the contentious elections.
She stated this at the beginning of the meeting.  At the end, when someone
asked about the elections, she made it clear that the meeting was not about
that, but only about negotiations!  It is my belief that *any* union related
matters are fair game for these meetings, and the union members have the
right to ask and comment accordingly in the public forum.

What does Robert's Rules have to say about this?  If this is addressed in the
Rules of Order, then kindly point me to the section so that I may quote it exactly
as it appears.

Many thanks again for your help!

Abe Mantell

If this was a regular meeting then you almost certainly should have been able to bring up a business item.  The background reason for this is that the introduction and taking care of business is why regular meetings are held. Regular meetings have a prescribed order of business with one of the categories of this "order of business" being "new business". You should have been able to bring up your business item at that time - which generally occurs after reading of minutes, officer and committee reports, and any unfinished business. Your organization, in their bylaws or other governing document, may have a defined order of business they have specifically adopted. If they do not have a defined order of business and you are operating under Robert's Rules, there is a defined order of business on page 531 of Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th edition).


(a) If this was a SPECIAL meeting that was called for a specific purpose -- then only that specified subject can be brought up and the chair must enforce this.  A SPECIAL meeting is a meeting held outside the schedule of regular meetings.  The topic of the SPECIAL meeting must be mentioned in the call of the meeting. <u>I assume that the meeting you are referring to here was not a SPECIAL meeting -- but instead it was a regular meeting of the organization.<u>

(b) If an agenda was adopted (by the assembly) at the beginning of the meeting then only the topics on that agenda can be brought up during the meeting (although there are ways to get around this.)  If the chair proposed an agenda at the beginning of this meeting, called for a vote on it, and a majority voted for it -- that would limit the business to what is on the agenda.  Note: Just having a pre-printed agenda or a previous distributed agenda, etc. does not
limit the meeting to just the items on the agenda. Such an agenda is a guideline to the chair and also a guideline to the assembly. Unless it is adopted by the assembly it cannot be strictly enforce.  Most organizations do not adopt an agenda at the beginning of each meeting - and those that do have the assembly adopt the agenda generally do so because of time pressure and they want to get through all the important items on the agenda.  <u>I assume that your meeting did not have an adopted agenda.<u>

(c) If you were just asking questions in the meeting - which it sounds like you might have done - then the chair does not necessarily have to allow this.  If may come as a surprise to many people but the concept of 'free speech' does not totally apply in a meeting. In order to accomplish business and meet the goals of the society the organization can and almost always has various restrictions on what can be done and when it can be done in a meeting. The chair has a responsibility to enforce proper restrictions.  

In addition the chair can enforce the rule that any new business must be brought up by a motion that has been properly made and has been seconded.  A reason for this is to discourage wandering discussions. If a motion is made - then discussion is limited only to that motion otherwise without a motion conversation and discussion can wander endlessly. We've all been in meetings where this occurs too often.  The reason for the 'second' is simply that an organization cannot be forced to spend time on discussing a subject that only one person wants to talk about.  


The way to get around being turned down by the chair for trying to get a general discussion (or question/answer session) started on a topic when you don't really have a specific action for the assembly to take -- is to make a motion such as:

"I move that we informally discuss the upcoming election [for 15 minutes]", or "I move that we have a question and answer period on the upcoming election."   Making this motion is introducing an item of business - and it will limit the ensuing discussion to just that topic.  Your motion would need someone to second the motion for the same reasons stated above -- there is no free speech option in a meeting for one person to talk about something if no one else wants to talk about it.

If such a motion is made - during the appropriate time such as when new business is being conducted but no other motion is actually being discussed, then the chair is obligated to put that motion before the group.  Usually there is no need for a formal vote - the chair can simply say, "If no one objects, we will discuss the upcoming election [for fifteen minutes]." If no one objects, and they usually don't, that is the same as taking a vote. This is called general consent (you can look this up in Robert's Rules.) If the chair doesn't want to discuss the topic (perhaps because of limited time) then the chair may go for a formal vote, hoping that the assembly will back him up and vote not to have the discussion.  "All those in favor of the election discussion as proposed please 'say aye' OR 'raise your right hand' OR 'stand and be counted'."

If a majority of the votes are to allow the discussion (or if the chair just used general consent) then after the successful vote the chair would look toward you (the maker of the motion) and give you the first opportunity to talk.

However, it sounds like...

In your case the chair simply may not wanted to have this topic or these questions brought up. The chair cannot unilaterally stop this (except for reasons such as it was a special meeting for another topic, or there was an adopted agenda that did not have this on it, etc.)  The chair could probably get away with stopping you from starting up a general discussion - on the basis that you didn't actually make a motion.  Although it would be better for the chair to  instead of stopping you - would have been to suggest you make a motion (similar to what I suggested) or the chair could 'assume' a motion and ask the assembly if they wanted to have a discussion period on this topic.

The bottom line is that chair is given a lot of authority (and deference) to conduct the meeting so that it is as efficient and productive as possible - although sometimes a chair can go a little too far and unfairly deny the rights of the members . (I don't know that this actually occurred in your meeting.)  

The way to balance a chair from perhaps being unfair is for individual members to know and exercise the member's basic rights and responsibilities. You have a right in a meeting to have the opportunity to bring up (or at least propose) any business item (at the proper time in the meeting.) Although a member does not have the right to freely bring up any subject for discussion (as I have suggested above) he/she can often find a way to do it that doesn't lead to wasted/unproductive time in the meeting -- and a way that is done with the consent (silent or voting) of a majority of the members.

The way to ask the assembly to do something is not to just start talking (although this often happens in a meeting) but to make a proposal - which is a motion.  The chair has a responsibility to keep order, to have an agenda, to make judgments on how best to run the meeting, but cannot be arbitrary nor heavy-handed.  If a legitimate motion is made the chair must process it.

My answer is general because I don't have the specifics of your situation and I have simplified it somewhat.  

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Loren Kropat


Answer auestions on parliamentary procedure and rules of order for organizations. These are the rules by which a deliberative body (private clubs, parliament, legislatures, senates, social organizations, etc.) conduct business. Expertise is primarily in American parliamentary procedure but can answer questions on world-wide deliberative bodies. Research on parliamentary procedure books.


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