Inviting professional, registered parliamentarian Ann Macfarlane in to speak to the Auburn City Council about her area of expertise, Robert’s Rules of Order, and how to use them to serve the community better, had been in the planning stages for months.
So it was actually one of those ironies that her presentation of Robert’s, written long ago to oil the wheels of civility in formal meetings, appeared on the docket of Monday’s study session, hard on the heels of a recent council controversy.
“It was timely, I would say, in that the issues we addressed were symptomatic of what went wrong,” said Deputy Mayor Bob Baggett, who runs the council meetings.
Baggett’s reference was to Councilmember Largo Wales’ use of an obscenity during the March 5 regular meeting to refer to fellow council member John Holman, who had just called out Wales on one of Robert’s points of order, that is, for speaking more than two times on a single topic.
Turns out, Macfarlane stressed, that initially limiting a single member’s comments to two-per-topic, to give others a chance to speak, is one of the most important of all the rules which that necessary-but-dry-as-dust book-of-do-thises-and-don’t-do-thats sets down.
Macfarlane rolled out all she had to say in a lively, two-hour-mix of anecdotes about meetings gone bad elsewhere — including one where somebody in a city-not-named dropped his pants during a meeting to express an opinion — and lecture and role-playing scenarios.
An interesting fact of history, Macfarlane noted, is that it was Thomas Jefferson who wrote the first manual on parliamentary procedure in 1776, with the acknowledgment that any association of people, “from the smallest town vestry to the greatest assembly of nations,” will have its quarrels.
“We think of our Founding Fathers and how great they were, but they had their quarrels, they had their fights, they had their difficulties as well, and the whole idea of writing the manual was to try to help everybody come together,” Macfarlane said.
Macfarlane assigned the City’s legislators the roles of council members of the fictional city of Dinoville, giving them names like Betty Brontosaurus and the like, and put them through their paces.
Respect each other, put the personal aside, and remember you are here for a sacred purpose, to support the City and all its residents, Macfarlane said.
And once a measure is passed, move on, don’t dredge it up later on in the meeting.
Whether a particular remark constitutes an insult should be up to council consensus, but if council agrees, even calling others “Bozos” could be allowed.
Crucial, McFarland said, is the role the chairperson – here, the deputy mayor – plays in running the council meetings: how he or she handles inappropriate comments, non-germane comments, flaring tempers ,and all the unpredictable things that can happen when people are hashing out issues with others who may vehemently disagree with them.
The question at the end of the evening, of course, was whether vigorous observance of Robert’s Rules of Order and the council’s own rules will make things better.
Council members were optimistic.
“Point of order was the biggest contention; it raised the hackles on a lot of us,” Councilman Bill Peloza said after the meeting, about the recent controversy. “This has been a good education process for leadership, and it should bear out a lot of positive movement for the council going forward.”
“I think it’s going to provide better civility between council members because it gives you more formal processes. Robert’s gives you that anyhow, but I think after tonight we have the opportunity to go a little bit deeper into understanding each other,” said Councilman Claude DaCorsi.
A lot of what happens in meetings to come will fall on Baggett.
“It’s a lot to remember as to protocol and procedure, the right words to say at the right time. It’s a challenge, but it’s part of the learning process. Like Ann said, you have to repeat these things time and time again to be in the habit of doing it,” Baggett said.
Would application of Robert’s Rules of Order all around have prevented what happened on March 5?
“I’m not sure, can’t say for sure,” Baggett said. “You get personalities and things like that involved, and it’s … difficult to assume what a person will say or do at one moment in time. I believe what happened was a clash of personalities more than anything. We have to learn to respect each other and remember why we are all here.”