Our public bodies would do themselves, and us, a favor by adopting the ABA’s ‘Modern Rules of Order.’

Robert’s Rules of Order are the most widely adopted and referenced parliamentary rules in our country. Our own Lafayette Parish School Board, the Lafayette City-Parish Council and just about every organization has adopted Robert’s Rules as its own.  

But you probably don’t have a copy of it, nor do you know someone who does. Therein lies a problem, but it’s not the only problem.

Before we get into those other problems, let’s agree that rules of order are very useful. Ideally, they enable us to work together in groups, particularly groups that do not have a natural order like a family, a religious order or the military.  

We need to know who is in the group. Who gets to talk? Does the majority always win? Does the minority always lose? When is a decision final?  
These questions are essential and eternal. That is why General Henry Martyn Robert published the first edition of Robert’s Rules of Order in 1876. He was a West Point graduate and engineer who understood the value of orderly discussion and decision making.  

The 4th Edition of Robert’s Rules published in 1915 was the last edition personally supervised by General Roberts. That’s where some of our present problems begin.

Try Googling Robert’s Rules of Order. You will find the Official web site, the Wikipedia entry and Robert’s Rules of Order Online. The little blurb under the Online web link conveniently explains: “Although the copyright on the original Fourth Edition of Robert’s Rules of Order Revised has expired, it remains an important work. RulesOnline.com contains the full text of this book, including lesson outlines and Plan for Study of Parliamentary Law, along with the added convenience and functionality of index and keyword search. This handy online reference tool is useful to students of parliamentary procedure and parliamentarians alike.”

This is the likely explanation for what happened to local school board member Greg Awbrey at the onset of our proliferating Lafayette school board parliamentary skirmishes. The particular issue that night isn’t important, nor are the specific Rules that were in play.  

The point is that Awbrey, the parliamentary aggressor, cited page, section and line in support of his procedural contentions only to learn that his 1915 classic 4th Edition references were horribly out of date. The Rules had been changed, reformatted and renumbered in 1970. Even worse, the school board policy required the most current edition of Robert’s Rules. The aggressor no longer held the parliamentary high ground upon which he had relied.

At the time of that skirmish, the most current version of Robert’s Rules was the “Millennium” 10th Edition, which was in its twilight and superseded by the 11th Edition later that same year.

What happened? If the 4th Edition was good enough for General Robert after 50 years of study and publication, why was it not good enough to support the perplexed Lafayette Parish School Board member who tried to play by those same Rules now.

One reason is that times have indeed changed. Groups meet and reach decisions in a variety of ways and by a variety of means. Video conferencing and email did not exist in his day.

But there is another reason that has to do with the business side of the house. The Official Robert’s Rules of Order website is maintained by the Robert’s Rules Association, made up of descendants of Gen. Robert. Robert’s Rules of Order and the contents of the site are copyrighted by Henry M. Robert III, trustee for the Robert’s Rules Association.

That association’s most prominent members are Sarah Corbin Robert, the daughter-in-law of Gen. Robert and trustee who headed the 1970 wholesale revision, and her son, Henry M. Robert III, who continues the family business and serves as the parliamentarian of the National Association of Parliamentarians. Robert’s Rules is the definitive parliamentarian work in this country. But are we well served referring to the definitive work? The Millennium edition, which I own, consists of 704 pages of very small font on densely worded pages. It even has its own Authorized Concise Guide weighing in at a svelte 194 pages.   

The Guide is actually very helpful in understanding the rudiments of parliamentary rules and procedure — so much so that it is tempting to use it rather than its big brother. But right inside its front cover is this disclaimer: “This book is only a partial summary … therefore is not itself suitable for adoption by any organization as its parliamentary authority.”

Fortunately, there is an alternative: The Modern Rules of Order, 3rd Edition, published by the American Bar Association. The author is Donald Tortorice, a combat commander of a coastal and river patrol boat in Vietnam, a corporate lawyer and an adjunct professor of law who is described as having chaired and sat through more business meetings than he cares to remember.

Measuring a slight 59 pages with requisite small font but exceedingly generous white space, it confirms that “the essential requirement for the procedural framework of any meeting is that the meeting be conducted with fairness and good faith toward all who are entitled to take part, and that those present may be given an opportunity to consider and act on matters properly brought before the meeting.”

What a refreshing approach. It might even leave us with time to discuss substantive issues rather than unraveling the intricacies of parliamentary maneuvering. And, it would have saved the time and expense of the 11th Edition of Robert’s Rules, from which Mr. Awbrey most recently quoted.

Gary McGoffin is a community activist and partner in the law firm of Durio, McGoffin, Stagg and Ackermann. He has practiced law in Lafayette for the past 35 years. Legal Matters, a monthly column exclusive to ABiz, is written by members of the Lafayette Bar Association.

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