Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias Things were going along fairly smoothly at Monday's Vermillion City Council meeting, until the topic of Robert's Rules of Order came up on the agenda.

Ironically, discussion on this time-tested tool that keeps meetings running smoothly nearly forced constructive activity by the city council to come to a halt.

We're not talking about a screeching halt, either. We're talking about a long, drawn-out, tortuous event.

It was sort of like watching an Indy 500 race car that's traveling at over 200 miles per hour try to finish the last lap around the track with no fuel. The driver won't voluntarily slow down, because he wants to try to make it across the finish line.

So spectators can only watch as the speeding car begins coasting.

It's a painful process to watch a sleek machine begin to slow, its wheels turning at a slower and slower rate with each second.

The Vermillion City Council began to run out of gas when it began to discuss the reconsideration of what form of Robert's Rules of Order it should use.

At its previous meeting, the council agreed to follow the 1980 edition of Robert's Rules.

Mayor Bill Radigan asked that the council reconsider that action. "There is a later edition, and to me, it doesn't make sense to have the 1980 edition when there is a later one, and I would like to ask that we reconsider this for the purpose of establishing that we use the current, latest edition," he said.

That caused Alderman Frank Slagle to respond. Soon the debate became lengthy, and more and more unproductive.

In essence, the question that was posed before the council was a rather simple one: Should it stick to the 1980 version of Robert's Rules, or adopt a newer version, perhaps one that was revised or rewritten in this decade?

It's a question that the council should have been able to decide rather quickly. This isn't a highly complex issue.

But city business was put on hold for at least a half an hour, maybe more, as the council discussed this issue ad nauseam.

Anyone who has watched the city council in action knows it is made up of hard-working individuals who have the best intentions of the city at heart.

It was disturbing, however, to watch something as simple as deciding what version of Robert's Rules to use throw a big monkey wrench in the works.

It was also a disservice to the public.

There were citizens at the meeting waiting to talk to the council about serious issues.

Councilman Roger Kozak made a suggestion near the end of the lengthy debate that the council should heed.

"Maybe this is an oversimplification," he said, explaining why he was about to vote against a motion to defer action on deciding which form of Robert's Rules to use. He felt it was better for the council, for the time being at least, to accept the form that approved at its previous meeting. "If at any time in the future this governing body decides there would be a better way, a better set of rules to follow, they could advance those set of rules."

As mentioned earlier, there was an ironic twist to the debate on this issue. Robert's Rules of Order include certain measures that are designed to keep meetings from getting out of hand, including:

* Motion to End Debate and Vote or Call the Question: Applies only to the motion on the floor. Not debatable; requires two-thirds vote.

* Motion to Extend Debate: can be general, or for a specific time or number of speakers. Not debatable.

* Motion to Amend: Must be voted for by a majority to be considered and by a two-thirds vote to be passed. If the amendment is accepted as "friendly" by the proposer of the amendment then many bodies will allow it to be accepted without a formal vote; this is a way of including a consensus-building process into procedure without endless debate over amendments to amendments.

Other meeting guidelines:

* When a topic is first introduced or a main motion is made, allow all questions for information purposes to be asked before opening to debate.

* Discourage the repetition of arguments. Attempt to call on people who have not yet spoken before those who have already spoken. Discourage dialogues that start up between two individuals in debate.

* If debate carries on too long, impose time limits on speakers.

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