One of the many changes to the Common Interest Ownership Act (“CIOA”) going into effect in July, 2010 includes the mandatory use of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (RONR) in association meetings unless the declaration, bylaws or other law otherwise provides, or two-thirds of the votes allocated to owners present at a meeting are cast to suspend those rules. Technically, association meetings refers to all meetings: committee meetings, board meetings and unit owner meetings. To understand why I am opposed to the mandatory use of RONR a brief history is an appropriate starting point.
Henry Martyn Robert (1837-1923), an engineer and U.S Army brigadier general, was a self-taught student of parliamentary procedure. He published his first addition of the rules in 1876. His objective was to provide a brief and simple guide for every meeting-goer and initially tried to fit his rules into 50 pages. Doomed from the beginning, he needed 176 pages for the first edition and today the full edition of RONR contains 643 pages of text plus tables and index. To be fair, Henry M. Robert III Trustee for Robert’s Rules Association predicts that “the average person doesn’t have to know all this to be able to function effectively in most ordinary meetings. . . at least 80 percent of the content of RONR will be needed less than 20 percent of the time.”
Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised In Brief by Henry M. Robert III, William K. Evans, Daniel H. Homemann, and Thomas J. Balch (2004) (The so-called brief edition cited here is 197 pages.)
So why am I opposed to the use of this much studied ever evolving tome of order? Let’s start with a discussion of some of the outcomes most homeowners and board members want from their meetings.
1. Decisions which Are Consistent with the Underlying Governing Documents.
The legal documents for common interest communities consist of a declaration, bylaws, rules, and policies all of which must be read and interpreted to comply with applicable state and federal law. As a starter each unit owner is tasked with understanding these governing documents which are often not intuitive and can be obtuse. Is it realistic to expect homeowners to be able to understand and effectively use RONR as well?
2. Meetings which Engage and Involve All Members.
I have yet to attend a meeting, any meeting, in which a board and/or unit owners understood how to use RONR effectively. The one exception was a court ordered board election run by a parliamentarian. Too often I have seen the board member charged with running the meeting spend a great deal of time tripping over RONR. The focus of the meeting quickly shifts to procedural instead of substantive issues. Several years ago I attended a meeting run by a brand new president. She had been told by the former president that this was a special meeting thereby prohibiting any questions or comments from the membership on matters not on the official agenda. “That would be dangerous” the former president advised her. Her use of RONR was so confusing that the membership was left silenced and the meeting ended in 15 minutes. Since that particular meeting was to discuss community goals the lack of engagement by the membership represented a significant failure of leadership. The consensus was that this board of directors, was that this board of directors was out of touch and not serving their constituency. The formality of RONR can also have a chilling effect on the willingness of members to participate. Many people who live in our communities have little experience speaking in public and the required use of RONR will further discourage them from participating.
3. RONR is Inappropriate for Most of Association Meetings
RONR is arguably only appropriate for the few very large or contentious meetings where the unit owners are unable to have a civil discussion. In those cases I think it is appropriate to bring in a parliamentarian. Since RONR is supposed be to used for all association meetings it is not hard to see that it quickly becomes a weapon of intimidation by the few who know how to use it. Individuals who do not share a least a basic understanding of RONR are cut out of the deliberations and alienated. Most communities in Connecticut are between 50 and 80 units with typically a small number attending meetings on a regular basis. The changes to CIOA require the use of RONR in all meetings of the association. Why should a committee of five people taskedto help find a landscaping contractor be burdened with such an overly formalized process?
General Henry M. Robert concluded that disorderly discourse was the biggest problem facing the boards and associations he served in the 19th century. In their seminal work, Governance as Leadership Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, the authors argue that “Robert’s Rules are out of order” and should be replaced by a facilitator whose role is to guide the board through an “inquisitive, inclusive, spontaneous conversation.” Pg 45-46. Rather than formal parliamentary procedure, associations need to encourage free-flowing discussions and promote trust, commitment and collaboration. Id at 13. If common interest communities are to thrive and not just survive they need a totally different approach than offered by General Robert. A set of rules focused on facilitating discussion among all in attendance and reaching fair and reasoned decisions should be the objective.
When you undertake your document revisions, consider whether you want RONR or a more vibrant facilitation based approach to governance. Governance of community associations is hard work. “Disorderly discourse” is a problem. In my opinion, unit owners and board members would be well served to spend their time in facilitation workshops offered by community mediation organizations and local community colleges instead of tackling the 19th century version of order advocated by General Robert.
The Article originally appeared in COMMON INTEREST Vol. V Issue 1, Published by the Connecticut Chapter of Community Association Institute (2010)