Robert’s Rules – Helpful, or No?

I’ve had several conversations recently about whether the use of Robert’s Rules of Order is necessary in an HOA meeting. Some people like the idea, and some people hate it.
I recently joined the National Association of Parliamentarians, the only organization I know of that requires you to pass a test just to become a member. Knowing that I’m a member of the NAP should tell you which side of the Robert’s Rules discussion I’m normally on.

In these discussions I’m quick to point out that no parliamentary authority (Robert’s Rules is just one of several) is necessary in any group where everyone agrees on everything and there is no need for debate, and by debate I mean an orderly discussion of facts and opinions.

How many HOA meetings have you been to where everybody agrees on everything? One thing I’ve learned over the years is that I like having people around me who disagree with me. I know that I don’t know everything, and so I rely on people that know things that I don’t. What I don’t like is people who want to argue with me instead of having a business-like discussion.

I dare say that many people who are not very familiar with Robert’s Rules think that it is very restrictive and onerous. While that can be the case, if that is the way the organization chooses, there are several provisions in Robert’s Rules that can be easily invoked to facilitate a more friendly – and less strict – discussion.

Here are a few places where Robert’s Rules can help instead of hinder.

The Small Board Provision

There are a number of rules that can specifically be applied to any small organization, generally around a dozen people or so. Most HOA boards are well under 12 people, so in general these rules would apply to any board meeting.

For example, in a large group after a motion is made (a motion being a formal statement of something to be discussed and voted on) that another member of the group who agrees that the motion is worth of consideration “seconds the motion”. In the small group rules, a “second” of any motion is not necessary.

Also in a large group, each member of the group is limited to speaking for 10 minutes, and can only speak twice on a motion. In the small group rules, these limits are not enforced – though we know there are times when the discussion gets out of hand. At this point, Robert’s Rules says a small group can entertain a motion to “consider the main motion formally”, and set aside the small group rules for the time being.

Motion to Limit Debate

We all know there are times when the discussion will just go on and on. If there’s only one person passionate about a topic, usually the other members can convince the passionate one to limit their discussion – especially if everyone else agrees in principle, but perhaps without the same fervor. But if there are several sides to the lively discussion, often it will seem to take on a life of its own.

In this case, if you are operating under the small group rules, a motion to “consider formally and limit discussion” might be in order. By default this would normally limit each person to speaking twice, 10 minutes each time. But who has time for that? I think most HOA board meetings are scheduled during a two hour timeframe, and if everyone spoke twice for 10 minutes on the first item of business, you’d be out of time.

In that case – as well as in the case where you have not invoked the small group rules – a motion to “limit discussion to 3 minutes per person, one time only” might be in order. Another possibility is to “limit discussion to 3 minutes per person, ending all discussion at 7:45pm,” which might allow one or two people to speak twice, but might also deny some people an opportunity to be heard.

More appropriate for a long-term solution to the “some people talk too much” problem is to create a standing rule limiting discussion to 3 minutes per person. Someone – typically the chairperson or president – is responsible for starting a timer when someone starts speaking, and when the timer goes off, the speaker gets a few seconds to wrap it up. If there is a sense that most members of the group would like to hear more from this one, perhaps most knowledgeable, person, Robert’s Rules certainly allows a motion “to allow Tom to continue to speak for another 4 minutes”. If the majority support that, Tom continues to speak, and if the majority do not, Tom is done. Simple as that.

When A Committee Fails to Act

At a previous meeting our HOA board assigned the Landscaping Committee the task of reviewing and modifying the RFP for landscaping services. (I made a motion to assign this task to the Landscaping Committee after a 45-minute free-for-all discussion by the board members. It was my first meeting as a board member, and I think they were glad I was there to help get us back on track!)

At the next meeting, the chairman of the Landscaping Committee was not present, and when the board asked one of the members of the Landscaping Committee what progress was made, we were told there had been no meeting. For a few moments, the board just looked at each other and shrugged, wondering what to do. Robert’s Rules to the rescue!

I made a multi-part motion, based on my recently-acquired knowledge of proper procedures. My motion was to “remove the Landscape RFP Review task from the Landscape Committee, and form a special Landscape RFP Review Committee for the sole purpose of reviewing and modifying the Landscape RFP and present a report at the next monthly board meeting”. There was, as you might expect, some discussion, but in the end everyone agreed that this would more likely produce timely results.

Suspend The Rules!

One of the most useful motions that Robert’s Rules has to offer is a motion to “suspend the rules”. One thing to keep in mind is that this provision can only be used to suspend a parliamentary procedure rule, and can’t (or at least shouldn’t!) be used to suspend a rule in the Bylaws, CC&Rs, or Articles of Incorporation. (The big book of Robert’s Rules also says you can’t suspend a rule such as a state statute, unless the statute has a provision in it allowing the rule to be suspended.)

As an example, let’s say your Bylaws says that the President of the Association is the Chairperson of the Board and shall preside at board meetings, but there is a particularly hot topic coming up, and to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and the whole matter is handled properly, someone suggests that the organization hire a Professional Registered Parliamentarian to chair the meeting. Can this be done?

The generally accepted answer is YES. “But the Bylaws say the President has to preside,” someone says. But the question of “who presides over a meeting” is a parliamentary procedure rule, and so can therefore be “suspended” by a motion to “hire a Professional Registered Parliamentarian to chair the next meeting”.

Too Many Rules!

There are two official current books on Robert’s Rules. The “big book” is called Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th Edition, and is just over 800 pages long. It is the source for parliamentary rules covering a wide range of meeting situations, including conventions, organizational meetings of new societies, and more. It is not for the “casual reader” wanting to take their first dive into parliamentary procedure.

The “little book”, officially known as Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised In Brief, is a more novice-friendly, being more of a readable tutorial on the basics as opposed to a comprehensive reference book like its big brother.

I think most of you would agree that most every HOA board member should have a working knowledge of their governing documents such as the CC&Rs and Bylaws. Most of the board members should also have a working knowledge of the state statutes applicable to non-profit corporations (assuming your association is incorporated) and planned communities, condominiums, or whatever type of association yours is.

Someone on your board ought to be very familiar with parliamentary procedure. My experience is that the lawyers are not – their concern is with laws, risk, and liability. My experience also is that management representatives are also not familiar with parliamentary procedures – their concern is with managing the day to day functions such as maintenance, collections, violations, and fines.

If you have nobody on your board familiar with parliamentary procedure… maybe you’re the one who should find your local chapter of the NAP and study up.

Without rules, chaos rules.
– Ray Harwood

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About Ray

I'm just your average, likeable guy with opinions to share. I'm a programmer, project manager, web developer, systems architect, weather and videography enthusiast, and a lover of people. Some things I'm better at than others...
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3 Responses to Robert’s Rules – Helpful, or No?

  1. Sandy says:

    I agree with “Anonymous” about all Board Members should attend classes. In my area we have FREE “HOA-101” classes given at the local community college each year. Each of the past 3 years, there have been several surrounding planned communities that have been represented by their Board. Sadly, in the 3 yrs I’ve attended these classes, there has only been ONE Board of Director from our 6000+ unit planned community who cared to attend to learn about things like AZ statutes, etc. From the way some of our Board meetings go–the others might want to join in this year!


  2. Anonymous says:

    When I watch board members what I see is total disrespect for the office held and the Members. Every board member should be required to attend classes. You would think when these people reach their ’70’s and ’80s they’d show at least some respect but they do not. To be a board member takes a certain mentality. With no respect for State Statutes, Governing documents, or Members it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever “give a damn” about Robert’s Rules.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ray says:

      This is why I studied our governing documents, state statutes, and Robert’s Rules for 10 months – to know more about them than anyone previously on the board. Then I got on the board. If there’s nobody ON the board with decent people skills, then someone has to step up and help the community get a grip on itself. Otherwise, nothing will change.

      Liked by 1 person

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