Copyright 2024 All Rights Reserved.

July 18, 2024

Parliamentary Procedure – Roberts Rules of Order- Tool or Weapon?

By Kirk Allen & John Kraft

On September 20, 2023

Illinois (ECWd) –

Parliamentary procedure, commonly referred to as Roberts Rules of Order, is designed to be a tool to ensure meetings are conducted in a fashion that follows recognized procedures and with some sense of decorum. What it is not intended to be used as is a weapon to stifle the business before the body or as a mechanism to embarrass a person who may have invoked a rule improperly.

Having attended at least a thousand meetings in my life where Roberts Rules of Order were involved, I learned early on that very few had any clue what those rules actually were.  I recall asking our own county board years ago if any of the members had ever read Roberts Rules of Order and one board member quickly raised his hand as having read it.  Considering he had just invoked those rules he was not about to admitt he had not read it.  Lying was his path of choice. Unfortunately, the board member could not even describe what the book looked like or its size.  For those not familiar with it, it’s a small 5″ X 7″, seven hundred and fourteen-page book, not the big 8.5″ X 11″ size the board member described.

There are people who study parliamentary procedure for years and in some cases make a career out of being a professional parliamentarian.  That is not the case with our local governments.

Numerous public bodies adopt the Roberts Rules of Order, but few have a copy to refer to during meetings and even fewer have actually read from it to know what is in it.  In my Air Force career, we used those rules frequently during our meetings and it was there that I actually laid eyes on an actual copy. While it is filled with tons of information pertaining to the conduct of a business meeting, it also includes items that are inconsistent with some state’s Open Meetings laws. For example, under Roberts Rules, the body may choose to forbid non-members from speaking. Such a rule violates the Illinois OMA law which outlines citizens have a right to speak during every public meeting. So, understanding how to properly apply the rules comes into play but as we have seen for years, this requires actual reading, and few have read those rules.

During a recent county committee meeting in which a controversial subject on the agenda garnered all kinds of attention and attendance by local citizens who were opposed to the item on the agenda, the chair of the committee motioned to table the resolution.   Upon being questioned if that followed Roberts Rules of Order the chair pointed to a prior tabling of a matter of another board as the justification it could be done. One board member accurately pointed out that just because others did it does not make it right. The committee turned to the citizens for input. Sadly, the input given was not understood as verbalized and then mischaracterized and the board tabled a resolution in violation of Roberts Rules of Order.

Why was tabling a resolution on the agenda a violation of Roberts Rules of Order (RRO)?

RRO – 17:1 – “The motion to Lay on the Table enables the assembly to lay pending question aside temporarily when something else of immediate urgency has arisen or when something else needs to be addressed before consideration of the pending question is resumed, in such a way that (emphasis added):

    •  “There is no set time for taking the matter up again;”
    • “But (until the expiration of time limits explained in 17:8) its consideration can be resumed at the will of a majority and in preference to any new question that may then be competing with it for consideration.”

There was no question before the committee because there was no motion or second made to approve the resolution in question.  Without a question before the body, there is no pending question to be table, just as one board member alluded to.

According to 17:2 of RRO:

“By adopting the motion to Lay on the Table, a majority has the power to halt consideration of a question immediately without debate. Such action violates the rights of the minority individual members if it is for any other purpose than the one stated in the first sentence of this section….”

First Sentence in that section of RRO:

“To interrupt the pending business so as to permit doing something else immediately” (emphasis added)

17:2 RRO “…..“In ordinary assemblies, the motion to Lay on the table is not in order if the evident intent is to kill or avoid dealing with a measure.” (emphasis added)

The tabling was done in violation of Roberts Rules for several reasons.

  • There was no question before the body, therefore, nothing to table.
  • It was not tabled because of any other pending business that needed to be dealt with immediately because the resolution was the only action item on the agenda.
  • It was clear the Chair wanted no part of approving what was on the resolution and the tabling was used as a means to kill or avoid dealing with the matter.

RRO does outline that a motion to table “is commonly misused in ordinary assemblies in place of a motion to Postpone Indefinitely, a motion to Postpone to a Certain Time, or other motions.”

Action taken for the sole purpose of killing an item, as was done in the committee meeting referenced above is akin to silencing speech.  Whether for or against a matter, the public has a right to hear from all their officials who wish to speak on a matter.  In some cases, such communication may divulge unknown information that is of value to the public.  When officials are silenced the public is unable to validate their concerns and the result is a citizenry that acts from emotion rather than actual facts.

For those truly interested in learning the proper conduct of a meeting you can purchase a copy of the current 12th Edition at this link.




Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on print


  • Naomi lopresto
    Posted at 16:11h, 20 September Reply

    Looking forward to learning more about the Robert’s rules of law

  • David Somerset
    Posted at 16:45h, 20 September Reply

    Excellent article. If anyone knows how to get into the weeds of a matter and explain the details, you guys do.

    Just one question. Notwithstanding Article 1, Section 5, Paragraph 2 of the United States Constitution, does Robert’s Rules of Order promulgate anything with respect to the decorum of a sitting (supposedly) august government body? And more specifically the atmosphere created by a member who attends dressed as a vagabond in a hoodie sweatshirt, shorts and gym shoes?

  • Ted Hartke
    Posted at 18:03h, 20 September Reply

    Good and helpful information and lesson in this article.

  • Dick Peters
    Posted at 18:29h, 20 September Reply

    Thanks so much for attention to detail with respect to RRO. Every month I see elected officials using RRO to cause disorder and confusion to gain unjust advantage. Most elected officials do not understand RRO or parliamentary procedure. It’s always good to ask a Parliamentarian if they have a copy of the 11th version of RRO. You may be surprised at how little knowledge a Parliamentarian possesses.

Post A Comment