Robert’s Rules Part 1 – The Basics

Born in Robertville, South Carolina, Brigadier General Henry Martyn Robert (5/2/1837 – 5/11/1923) was the son of a Baptist preacher. Because of his father’s opposition to slavery, his father moved the family to Ohio, and this is where Henry was raised. Robert received an appointment to the United States Military Academy, West Point, and graduated fourth in his class with honors in 1857. Upon graduation he received a second lieutenant’s commission in the United States Army Corps of Engineers, where he became an engineer.

Robert remained with and fought with the Union during the American Civil War. With Robert being an engineer, there is no indications he took part in any battlefield engagements. He was involved with the defensive works of Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, PA during the war. His military service was distinctive, as evidenced by his long military career and appointment to Chief of Engineers. Robert retired from active service as a brigadier general.

The origin of the Rules of Order began when Robert was asked to chair a meeting at the First Baptist Church of New Bedford, Massachusetts about the town’s local defenses. The meeting, because of his lack of parliamentary procedure experience, devolved into an “open conflict” within the church itself. He was embarrassed by his inability to chair and control the meeting. This embarrassment left him determined never to attend or chair another meeting until he had a better understanding of parliamentary procedure. As a result of his military service, he was stationed in many different locations around the United States, and he discovered these regions had varying parliamentary procedures in use. He then decided to write a uniform manual and this manual became Robert’s Rules of Order; first published February 19, 1876.

The need for the ability to effectively chair and control a meeting still exists today. “I don’t want to hear any of that Robert’s Rules of Order sh_t, we gotta get board business done here.” This is a quote of a HOA board president during one of the most dysfunctional board meetings this author has ever attended. On a scale from one to ten on these board meetings being dysfunctional, conservatively, it registered at a twelve. On the same scale of accomplishing anything productive, “one” being not accomplishing anything of substance, and “ten” being having a successful meeting and accomplishing the work of the board; this meeting came in with a ranking of “two.”

Fortunately, 99.999% of most HOA board of director meetings are nowhere near this dysfunctional. There is a great deal of backstory on why this board was in this unproductive situation. In brief and simply, of this seven-member board, all seven members truly hated each other. Because of varying personalities and just plain human nature, it is not uncommon in the political dynamics of a HOA board of directors, to find board members on occasion who do not get along. But of this board, if someone would have had a heart attack during one of their meetings, this author pondered if any of the other six board members would have called for an ambulance.

Why a HOA board meeting situation such as this or even the most benign HOA board meeting benefits from Robert’s Rules of Order, unfortunately, may not be obvious until after these procedures are implemented. A competent HOA property management company can train the board on proper meeting procedures.  Even though this is obvious, the board’s behavior was damaging not only the board of directors, but the entire HOA. A small group in the membership retained the author to come and evaluate the situation and make suggestions. In the author’s twenty plus years of experience with an HOA property management company, had never seen anything like this situation, or more preciously, dysfunction to this level.

The HOA members reached out to the author’s HOA property management company and was invited to attend the board meeting after the board received an ultimatum from this group in the HOA membership who had had enough of the board’s antics. This group in the HOA threatened a recall election per the HOA governing documents and to remove and replace every one of the board members. Interesting, as much as these board members despised each other, they all apparently, for whatever reason, loved being on the HOA board. So, the board agreed to hear from the author, who owned a reputable HOA property management company, on how to improve the productively of their board meetings.

The biggest hurdle to overcome was the perception that several board members had about allowing board debate. Their concern was if debate of an issue was allowed it would prevent the issue from being voted on and approved. In particular, two of these board members had an issue that they wanted the board of directors to vote and approve HOA funds being spent. The author pointed out to these two board members that allowing for debate on their particular issue, and bringing it up to a board vote, pass or fail, was much more productive than not allowing debate altogether that would not lead to any vote at all. A seasoned HOA property management company will advise that using reason and logic sometimes helps with even the most inflexible personalities.

The second objection to Robert’s Rules was that three of the board members believed that Robert’s Rules allowed the other board members to bully them into voting a certain way. The author explained to them that was the complete opposite of how the Rules actually worked. Even using reason and logic, there was no way to overcome this objection until we all were actively utilizing the Rules, but this objection was overcome eventually.

The final objection with most of the board members was the formality of Robert’s Rules of Order. The concern here was that it would make the board meeting too rigid and unproductive. The board members believed they would not be allowed to give their thoughts. The author asked did they feel the meeting “free for all” that was currently taking place lead to the meeting being productive and everyone being heard. Everyone was in agreement, the current free for all could be improved upon.

Over the next hour and half, utilizing Robert’s Rules fundamentals, the board accomplished more than they had in the prior seven months since being elected to the HOA board. The key here is the fundamentals of Robert’s Rules of Order. Fundamentals being that a board member does not have to be a professional parliamentarian, nor does the board have to hire a parliamentarian to help conduct meetings. However, the board needs to understand and practice Robert’s Rules of Order to a degree that maintains order and improves meeting efficiency. This is referred to by some as Bob’s Rules of Order. There are so many minute details within Robert’s Rules of Order, performing every single step correctly is always the goal, but may not be realistic or practical. With this being said, a HOA board should utilize Robert’s Rules of Order to the highest degree possible, and in most instances this will be acceptable.  WDMC

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