Why rules of procedure matter

South Carolina law requires municipalities adopt rules of procedure by ordinance to ensure orderly and proper disposal of matters that come before council. Rules of procedure are designed to provide for majority rule and meeting efficiency while ensuring impartiality and fairness to all members of council.

Local rules of procedure address processes distinctive to municipal council meetings as required by local or state law and issues unique to the municipality’s form of government. On its website, the Association offers model rules of procedure as a starting point for developing local rules. To deal with specific applications such as motions, debate, votes, appeals and more detailed rules, councils often adopt by reference Roberts Rules of Order to supplement local rules.

How does Robert’s Rules work as a supplement?
If local rules do not cover a specific issue, supplemental rules are applied. It is the presiding officer’s responsibility to manage the meeting by properly and consistently applying the adopted rules. One of the most important, but often confusing, tasks for the presiding officer is understanding the order (or priority) in which motions should be addressed. Robert’s Rules provides guidance on this topic.

Four commonly recognized forms of motions in Robert’s Rules

A privileged motion applies to meeting administration, not current business. The motion is not debatable. Examples include motions to adjourn, recess or set a specific time for such actions. A privileged motion has the highest priority and must be acted on immediately.

A main motion introduces business to council for action. Council may address only one main motion at a time. The motion is subject to debate and amendment. Main motions fall behind all other motions in terms of rank or priority.

A subsidiary motion is a secondary motion applied to other motions, usually the main motion. It is used to amend, table, postpone, refer to a committee, extend or limit debate, or call for the question. Subsidiary motions must be handled before the main motion but not before any privileged motion. When multiple subsidiary motions are made, they are disposed of in reverse order. The last motion is dealt with first, working backwards to the main motion.

An incidental motion arises out of another motion and must be disposed of first. Examples include motions for a point of order, to suspend the rules, to appeal the ruling of the presiding officer and to withdraw a motion before a vote.

Understanding these motions and the order in which they must be dealt is extremely important for presiding officers.

Presiding officers have the responsibility of ensuring the limited time in council meetings is used effectively. Organization and order are imperative. When an action item on the agenda is called, the presiding officer should not allow discussion unless there is a pending motion, and he has recognized the member wishing to speak.

Once a motion is made and seconded, the presiding officer should allow debate. The member making the motion has the right to speak first. Members can make subsidiary motions at any time following introduction of the main motion. If there is an extended debate, a member can make a subsidiary motion to close debate. The motion requires a two-thirds vote to pass.

When developing local rules, council should establish time limits to allow equal input by all members. In addition, Robert’s provides that no member may speak more than twice and may not speak a second time until all members have been given a chance to speak.

Once council has voted on the main motion, it is time to move to the next agenda item. The only exception is if a motion to reconsider is made. This would be considered a new main motion. Only members who voted on the prevailing side of the original vote can make a motion to reconsider. Motions to reconsider are generally limited to the meeting at which the original vote was taken.

It is the presiding officer’s responsibility to maintain order in the meeting and to call both members of the public and council to order if they disrupt the meeting.

In situations when a meeting is disrupted, Robert’s Rules say the presiding officer should first call for general order. If this fails, the presiding officer should call the disruptive member or attendee to order, asking him to refrain from the disruptive action. In the rare instance the disruptive behavior continues, the presiding officer may call for the removal of the offending member or attendee from the meeting.

At any time, the accused member or any other member of the council may request a vote to appeal the presiding officer’s ruling of disruptive behavior or order to remove an attendee. Both actions are decided by a majority vote. In the case of removing a member, the council must vote on the removal. A two-thirds vote of the council is required to uphold the removal order.

The presiding officer is also responsible for issuing procedural rulings, such as the order of pending motions or whether a discussion is relevant to the pending question. A member of council may appeal a procedural ruling by making an incidental motion. If the motion receives a second, the presiding officer must put the question to an immediate vote. A simple majority of council decides the question. In the case of extenuating circumstances, rules of procedure can be suspended by a motion and two-thirds vote of the members. This motion is not debatable and should rarely be used.

To learn more about parliamentary procedure and other effective meeting techniques,  attend “Don’t Put Your Council Meeting in ‘Jeopardy’” during the Association’s Annual Meeting on Saturday, July 12, at 2:30 p.m. During this fun and informative session, audience members can test their knowledge during a game of “Jeopardy”–municipal style.


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