Robert’s Rules of Order

Gen. Henry M. Robert

I’m envisioning a cold Wisconsin winter morning 140 years ago, much like today’s, where Army Corps of Engineers Brigadier General Henry A. Robert was noodling around the idea of parliamentary procedure over his morning coffee.  His job brought him to Milwaukee in 1873 and over the following six years, he helped build ports in Green Bay and places throughout northern Wisconsin.

But it’s what he worked on before and after work that first winter he was here in the state that will remain his lasting legacy. For anyone who’s ever been to a meeting, be it a governmental hearing or at their place of employment, Robert’s Rules of Order remains the de facto way to do business. That’s what the people running the meeting use as their guide.

We’ve had a lot  of serious conversations here recently about how to run the meetings and hearings at the State Capitol.  However, when I think of Robert’s Rules, I remember this scene from the wine club on the television show, “Frasier.”

The reason I’m bringing this up is because I was at a training recently for new county board members and they were handing out the “In Brief” version of Robert’s Rules. It lets folks know that if they’re in a hurry to learn about parliamentary procedure and they only have half an hour, they can read Chapters 2-4 and they’ll have “the basics” of meeting protocol. If they have 45 minutes, they can read Chapters 2-6. If they have an hour and a half, they ought to read Chapters 1-11.

Now, it’s meant as an introduction and guide to the real book which is now in its 11th edition, not as a substitute. “This book,” the In-Brief version states, “is not itself suitable for adoption by any organization as its parliamentary authority.”

That duty falls on the big book, which has its own extensive website these days. In the time since Rutherford B. Hayes was elected President of the United States, Robert’s Rules has morphed from a 176-page book, describing 33 motions, to an 816-page book, highlighting and explaining nearly 90 motions.

Polls show a public increasingly frustrated in its efforts to engage with its government. Gen. Robert was so flustered with his experiences trying to run a meeting at his community church, as people talked back and forth and over each other, that he was compelled to lay out some structure.

As a father of three kids, age five and under, I completely understand the need to have rules and structure, but is it possible that we’ve made attending, participating and even running one of its hearings too difficult these days?

816 pages. Seriously?

It might be why in that Frasier clip,  the last voice one hears at the wine club after the back and forth of parliamentary procedure says, “I remember when we used to come here to drink.”

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