October 1, 2019

Order Up! Effective, Efficient City Meetings

"You’re out of order! *You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!” While a line like that delivered by Al Pacino in the film … enthralls movie audiences, similar scenes played out in city council, commission or board meetings should be left on the cutting room floor.

Much like actors play certain parts in movies, meeting participants and attendees also have certain roles to play, regardless of whether the meeting is for a city legislative body, public board or commission, neighborhood association, nonprofit organization, church, etc. As opposed to learning lines and marks, meeting participants’ needs to learn their roles and proper rules of order is essential to ensure effective and efficient meetings.

Meeting Roles

For the purpose of city council and commission meetings, there are five primary roles to fill:

  • City clerk
  • Parliamentarian
  • Presiding officer
  • Legislative body members
  • Attendees

The city clerk is one of the minimum essential officers for the conduct of business at a legislative body meeting. The clerk calls the roll, acts as timekeeper, tracks progress of the meeting and status of the agenda, records and counts votes, and takes minutes. If the clerk or an assistant is not present, the legislative body can select another person to perform these functions.

The city clerk can also act as the parliamentarian when assigned the duties, though many legislative bodies ask their city attorney to perform these functions — if they have a parliamentarian at all. The parliamentarian advises on matters of procedure — such as whether a certain motion is in order at the time — but he or she does not make any rulings. All rulings must be made by the presiding officer.

The presiding officer controls the flow of business, maintains order and ensures that all legislative body rules are followed. He or she also announces the order of business, enforces legislative body and parliamentary rules, recognizes members to speak, states and puts to a vote all motions, and adjourns the meeting. Except in the case of the Louisville Metro Council, the mayor is the presiding officer of city legislative body meetings.

In cities operating under the mayor-council form of government, the mayor is not considered a part of the city council. Even though he or she is the council’s presiding officer, he or she is not allowed to vote (except in the case of most ties), introduce legislation, or count toward the quorum.

The opposite is true for mayors in cities with the commission or city manager form of government.

The five-member legislative body in each of these cities includes four commissioners plus the mayor. As a result, the mayor in these forms may introduce legislation, can vote on all matters (in which he or she does not have a conflict of interest), and does count toward the quorum.

The members of the legislative body introduce and second motions, debate the issues according to adopted rules and vote on all matters without a conflict of interest. Almost every city legislative body meeting has members of the public in attendance, though not all cities allow residents to speak at every meeting. Offering residents the opportunity to address their city leaders during a public meeting is one of the reasons city government is so close to the people. However, without rules of order and/or a presiding officer fairly and equally enforcing these rules, city meetings can turn into much more tedious affairs.

Rules of Order

For the purpose of city business, city councils and commissions are relatively free to develop their own plans for conducting meetings, as long as no rules or operations violate state law. Even if cities do not officially adopt a parliamentary manual, such as Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, they are still bound by general parliamentary principles.

Parliamentary law balances the rights of the following:

  • The majority 
  • The minority, especially a substantial one
  • Individual members
  • Absent members, and
  • All of these together

The city’s approved parliamentary authority (and even general parliamentary law) governs the order and rank of motions, so all participants need at least a basic understanding of the types of motions and proper use of them in the course of regular business. Sometimes motions — but not the legislative body member — are technically “out of order” and should not be considered at that time.

A fundamental principle in parliamentary procedure is that two dissimilar issues cannot be considered at the same time. A main motion is used to introduce items to the members for their consideration. They cannot be made when any other motion is on the floor. So, if the legislative body is considering approval of an ordinance, a member could not move to approve a different ordinance, either related or unrelated to the original ordinance. (If it’s related, the member could move to amend the ordinance as originally proposed.)

Most people understand this parliamentary concept; however, it gets much trickier when secondary motions come into play. Some secondary motions have a rank relative to each other, while others do not. That means some motions are “out of order” simply because of when they occur in the debate or how they occur relative to other secondary motions. It is important for presiding officers, and all legislative body members, to have a working knowledge of parliamentary procedures to ensure the fair transaction of business during city legislative body meetings.

City legislative bodies should also approve their own standing rules that address issues of order, specifically dealing with time limits of speeches, when public input is allowed and meeting decorum. Most notably, allows members to speak on an issue twice for up to 10 minutes each. A standing rule that limits speaking time to a shorter duration, such as three minutes, may be approved by a majority vote. The rule may be suspended at any time with a two-thirds vote. (Contact the Kentucky League of Cities to request a sample municipal order relating to the conduct of legislative body meetings.)

Having a better understanding of your role and learning more about rules of order will help you play your part more effectively. Hopefully, your city legislative meetings will leave most of the drama to the movies.