An Uncalled for Question

GELFAND’S WORLD--It's that time of year when the new neighborhood council members are trying to learn the ropes. Some do admirably well. Some not so much. The worst actors are the ones who think they already know everything. They figure they can get by on innate smarts without studying either the history of their organization or the nuts and bolts of parliamentary procedure. A committee meeting I attended the other evening demonstrated these points all too well. 

First a little glossary: When we take up a motion for discussion, it is said to be on the floor. When we decide to stop considering the motion, it goes back on the table. The use of such archaic sounding words is a matter of parliamentary history. These words may sound strange in the modern context, but they have the advantage that anywhere you go in the United States, you will be able to understand it when people use them. 

So there we were, sitting around the conference table. The group was discussing amending a motion which had been placed before us. The discussion wasn't very productive. We were all beginning to get the idea that we didn't have the information we needed to make a decision. The way to deal with this kind of problem is simply to remove the motion from consideration -- send it away to be taken up some other day, or possibly even forgotten entirely. 

This is what one of my colleagues did, by making a routine motion to Table the motion under consideration. (Technically speaking, the books refer to this as lay the motion on the table, but everybody understands Table as verbal shorthand.) This motion is not only routine, it is one of the most common of the ten or twelve that we ordinarily use. So what happened next? 

One of the newcomers objected to the motion to table, on the grounds that you couldn't do that while an amendment was being debated. Those of us who actually know something about parliamentary procedure just glanced at each other with raised eyebrows. I mean, you can search through the 700+ pages of Roberts Rules of Order Newly Revised, and you won't find a rule like that. In fact, numerous (much shorter) textbooks on how to use Roberts Rules discuss the use of the motion to Table under all sorts of conditions including the one I have just described. 

So once again, for the zillionth time, a committee had to deal with a time wasting mistake, due solely to the fact that a participant was ignorant of standard parliamentary procedure. As a result, we all had to wait while the rules were explained. 

This, at least, was an innocent mistake. It was dealt with by other members of the committee taking the newby to school, so to speak, on what was legal. 

There is another kind of rule misinterpretation that is more serious, because it goes to the question of whether the rights of all participants are being defended. 

If you read through Roberts Rules of Order carefully, you will begin to understand the basic philosophical principal that is implicit in the entire structure. All participants are equal. There is a presiding officer (whether we call him/her the chair or the president), but that person is simply first among equals. A chair who is properly trained will preside over a meeting with the intention of defending the rights of all participants. This principal is superior to the principal that the chair should also help the meeting to run efficiently. It's nice to do both, but violating peoples' rights to gain efficiency is not acceptable. 

No right is more fundamental than the right to be heard during a discussion. As parents say to children, "Everyone gets a turn, but you have to wait for your turn." That's the way it is supposed to be in a neighborhood council meeting -- everyone should be allowed a turn to speak. A neighborhood council is a government entity in which all participants are, by definition, equal. For some reason, a lot of elected governing board members fail to realize this truth. 

So there we were on another topic which also had engendered considerable discussion. One member of the committee apparently decided that he had heard enough debate and wanted it to stop. He said, "I call the question." What happened next is one of the most widespread errors that happen in meetings run under Roberts Rules. The effect, had it not been stopped by wiser heads, would have been to disenfranchise a number of other people who wanted to speak. 

The chair, new to the position, took the motion to call the question as having legal authority, and immediately called for the committee to vote on the item under discussion. This was ignorant, and wrong in many ways. The most egregious offense was that the call for an immediate vote infringed on the rights of several people who were intending to speak. Not only that, but some of us had not spoken on the issue at all up to that point. 

Let's review the legitimate use of this motion, which won't take long. 

The motion to call the question is referred to in the books as Call for the Previous Question, an archaism which translates as, "I move that we stop debate immediately and vote on the motion right now." It's a way for a supermajority of a board to deal with truly time-wasting conduct. Suppose your group has been debating a motion that clearly has strong majority support, but a couple of individuals are stalling by raising amendments, one after the other. Each amendment in turn has to be considered and then voted down. Eventually, most of the board and all of the audience realize that there is overwhelming support for the motion and what is transpiring is just a waste of time. 

It is at this point that the motion, "Mr Chairman, I call the question" is appropriate. But there is a complication here. The motion, if passed, would infringe on the rights of the two opposition members to continue to offer amendments. Ordinarily, their right to offer amendments is not limited. For this reason, the motion to call the question requires three things: 1) a second 2) an immediate vote on the motion without further debate and 3) a two-thirds vote of all those present and voting. 

Roberts Rules is pretty solid on protecting the rights of the minority. The requirement for a two-thirds vote is fairly widespread in the rules structure, mainly dealing with moments when the rights of some minority will be limited. 

For some reason, my neighborhood council has to reteach the rules for calling the question every year. Apparently there are other organizations which fail to teach its proper implementation. The misuse of the motion to call the question is to give any one person a veto power over other people speaking. 

Some people like to argue that Roberts Rules is inadequate because it allows one person who knows the rules to lord it over everyone else. I think this argument is completely backwards. As our committee meeting showed, it is the ignorance of the rules that wastes time and allows the ignorant to attempt to control matters inappropriately. The remedy is not to abandon Roberts Rules. The rules provide the level playing field we all like to talk about. The remedy is to teach the rules to your board. 

By the way, I put my time where my mouth is when it comes to Roberts Rules. I will come to your governing board and teach you how to make your meetings shorter and more efficient by the proper use of parliamentary procedure. It takes about 90 minutes.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at