Ten years ago, I was elected to my homeowners association’s board of directors. Early on, another board member recommended following Robert’s Rules of Order, prompting a history lesson.
In 1863, then U.S. Army Col. Henry Martyn Robert was asked, last minute, to preside over a public meeting at his community church. The chaos that followed left him determined to learn parliamentary law. He found that different areas of the country had conflicting views of parliamentary procedure, often hindering organizations in their work.
In 1876, Robert wrote a manual, based loosely on British parliamentary procedures used in the U.S. legislature, to enable organizations across America to adopt the same set of meeting rules. Robert’s Rules remain the most commonly adopted parliamentary authority in the U.S.
Nonetheless, our board found that strict adherence to Robert’s Rules could inhibit communication and transparency, making meetings more caustic and less neighborly. So we followed the rules loosely at subsequent meetings, particularly in the face of differing opinions.
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I left the HOA board feeling that Robert’s Rules, though useful, were mostly just pretentious.
Since then, the consistency with which Robert’s Rules were followed in government and other organizations became more apparent, and I grew to respect their ability to streamline meetings, particularly those involving a large number of people.
Still, I underestimated their importance when only a few people were involved.
Then I became president of the newly reinstated PTA at my daughter’s school. Throughout the year, we were lucky if four or five people attended our board meetings. Not wanting to seem pretentious, I did not “impose” Robert’s Rules. Truth is, though I’d become more familiar with them, I was still ignorant of how, exactly, to implement them.
Besides, the new PTA board members seemed sincere and on the same page. Surely, meeting notes would be enough “for the record.”
Despite our size, it soon became impossible to keep order, as each meeting was hijacked by one passionate person or another (often me). Several times, I was certain the board had agreed upon an action, only to confront opposition upon attempting to implement said action.
Officers of the N.C. and Durham PTA Councils were invited to a couple of meetings, in which (like most) little to no business transpired because of the airing of grievances that, by now, had enveloped the board. Subsequently, we appointed a parliamentarian and tried to impose Robert’s Rules, but it was too late.
I resigned mid-year, ardently maintaining my involvement and support, and hoped that a more effective leader would emerge.
Last spring, the PTA membership elected me vice president. They also elected a new president, who had little direct experience with last year’s PTA board. I looked forward to a fresh start.
Determined to learn from my mistakes, I insisted at the first 2014-15 board meeting that every decision and action item be voted upon using Robert’s Rules.
I was surprised when no one else agreed with me.
I was even more surprised when, ironically, other board members insinuated that my insistence upon following Robert’s Rules was dragging out the meeting.
Though I sincerely understand both sides, I am sticking with Robert’s Rules. It’s not a difficult decision in this case, given that PTA bylaws require it.
America’s founding fathers wrote our Constitution and founded our democracy using parliamentary procedures upon which Robert's Rules are based. Since then, Robert’s Rules have continued to be used in government at federal, state and local levels, not to mention every bona fide organization (for-profit corporations to nonprofits to community committees), to accomplish effective decision-making among small to very large groups of people.
I am left wondering why this historically relevant, common and effective decision-making doctrine is not included in middle or even elementary school social-studies curricula.
Talk about a direct, engaging activity! Along with entertainment value, teaching today’s young people to use Robert’s Rules would likely reduce their future chances of being intimidated, as I once was, by this seemingly pretentious but necessary bureaucratic practice. And this can only increase the likelihood that they will be truly involved in our world.
I didn’t become familiar with Robert’s Rules until I was 32 years old.
This will not be the case for my kids.
In fact, I’m going to make a motion that we get Randy’s Pizza for dinner tonight. I expect I'll have no problem getting a second.
Melissa Rooney is a Durham mom, scientist, educator, and writer. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org