Council Considering New Rules of Order for Meetings

David Rosenberg

Few people can easily recall Henry Martyn Robert. However, many can immediately identify with his legacy: Robert’s Rules of Order.

Bylaws of organizations as small as a local stamp collectors’ club or as large as a multi-national corporation often contain clauses like: “All meetings and procedures shall be in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order” or “Robert’s Rules of Order shall guide all procedures.”  These rules are complex and can often dominate a meeting. 

To counter this complexity, Superior Court Judge Dave Rosenberg prepared “Rosenberg’s Rules of Order.” Rosenberg sat on the Davis, Calif., City Council and served as the city’s mayor.

After experiencing the frustration of using the complex Robert’s Rules of Order,  he developed his rules of order adapting the protocol in the “Roberts Rules” that best fit the most frequent procedures used in typical City Council decision making. When he released his rules, they received wide acclaim. The League of California Cities endorsed them “as a relatively easy way to make orderly democratic decisions in a manner that is readily understood by the council and the public.”

In writing his rules, Rosenberg lays four ground rules. First, rules should establish order. “The first purpose of rules of parliamentary procedure is to establish a framework for the orderly conduct of meetings,” he states.

Secondly these rules should also be clear because “simple rules lead to wider understanding and participation.” Complex rules create two classes, Rosenberg says:  those who understand and participate; and those who do not fully understand and do not fully participate.

“The rules of procedure at meetings should be simple enough for most people to understand. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case,” Rosenberg writes in the introduction to his rules. “Virtually all clubs, associations, boards, councils and bodies follow a set of rules — Robert’s Rules of Order — which are embodied in a small, but complex, book. Virtually no one I know has actually read this book cover to cover.”

Thirdly, rules should be user friendly — simple enough that the public is invited into the body and feels that it has participated in the process. Finally, rules should enforce the will of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority. 

Councilmember Frank Matarrese took the initiative in bringing change to the way the City Council conducts its meetings. Inspired by his May 2, 2017, referral, the City Council appointed Councilmembers Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Jim Oddie to a subcommittee to consider adapting new rules for conducting its business. Ezzy-Ashcraft and Oddie submitted their findings to the city’s Open Government Commission (OGC).

According to a city report, OGC suggested that the Council “adopt and receive training on Rosenberg’s Rules of Order with additional special rules that apply to Alameda.” This recommendation was scheduled to come before the entire City Council at its Tuesday, May 15, meeting. 

OGC’s recommendation states that because the “League of California Cities suggests following Rosenberg’s Rules of Order and the Alameda City Council already employs most of those rules,” the City Council should:  

  • Repeal the city’s original Rules of Order resolution and any resolutions amending it.
  • Introduce a new resolution adopting Rosenberg’s Rules of Order except for those rules that may conflict with an express rule adopted by resolution of the City Council.
  • Adopt special rules to supplement Rosenberg’s Rules of Order.

OGC points out that  Rosenberg’s basic format for an agenda item discussion calls for a motion before deliberation. “The commission believes this format will move matters forward in a more focused and efficient manner,” the commissions states. 

In addition, OGC recommends that the city provide a complete, updated Rosenberg’s Rules of Order on its website and include the legislative history at the end of the document. “This will codify the adopted rules into one coherent document if changes are made to the rules in the future,” OGC states. 

The recommended rules would help streamline City Council meetings, which are known to last into the wee hours of Wednesday morning. For example, if the Council adopts these new rules, then new items cannot be called after 11 p.m. The change eliminates voting at 10:30 p.m. as well as the current requirement that the city adds regular meetings any time three meetings in a row go past 11 p.m. 

To help meetings go smoother, the new rules would limit public comment to three minutes for items with six or fewer speakers, two minutes for items with seven to 12 speakers, and one minute for items with 13 or more speakers. 

The new rules would also prohibit speakers from ceding time to another speaker. They would also apply to the City Councilmembers by limiting their comments to nine minutes per item: “A City Councilmember may speak up to three times on an agenda item and no more than three minutes at a time.” If all falls in place, the new rules would also limit ceremonial presentations to 15 minutes and limit comments by groups receiving proclamations to two minutes.
Rosenberg’s rules regarding courtesy and decorum help move an item expeditiously forward. For example: 

  • Speakers are to be first recognized by chair and the chair has the right to cut off discussion that is too personal, loud or crude.
  • The chair may limit the time allotted to speakers, including members of the body. 
  • Speakers are generally not interrupted, except when it relates to anything that would interfere with the normal comfort of the meeting or to anything considered inappropriate conduct. 
  • A member of the body may appeal the ruling of the chair to limit a speaker’s time; a simple majority may reverse ruling of chair.

Should the city adopt Rosenberg’s rules with the modifications that OGC recommends, the City Council should see its meetings streamlined to a point where its meetings no longer drag on into the early morning hours.