I have had the pleasure and honor of serving ASA for the past year as Vice Speaker of the House of Delegates. As with ASA’s Speakers and Vice Speakers before me, I completed a rather extensive course of study and obtained my certification as a Registered Parliamentarian (“RP,” for short). Having led and participated in countless meetings for various organizations over the years, I have encountered some common misconceptions regarding the conduct of meetings. I would like to offer my suggestions to the non-parliamentarian readers of the NEWSLETTER to facilitate a more efficient (and hopefully more tranquil) meeting.
1. The purpose of parliamentary procedure is to facilitate the orderly transaction of business and to promote cooperation and harmony1
Although I will acknowledge that this may be far more easily said than done, this should be the goal when conducting (or participating in) any meeting of any organization. When done well, a meeting should be orderly, i.e., any member has an opportunity to present his or her views, and – with very few exceptions – to do so without interruption. Promoting cooperation and harmony can be a challenge when deliberating contentious, emotionally charged items. Allowing all sides to be heard, in my opinion, is essential. Although it is possible from a parliamentary procedure standpoint for a two-third’s vote to end debate before any debate has occurred,2 taking such a step without hearing the concerns of the minority is not likely to foster harmony within the organization. Once the minority has had adequate opportunity to express itself, a two-third’s vote to end debate is an orderly option to consider.
2. Approval of minutes should only take a few seconds
The minutes of an organization are important, in that they provide a written record of the actions of that organization. They may be used by auditors or the courts as verification of financial or legal actions, respectively, so they must be accurate. There are two essential elements to accurate and efficient minutes: 1) have a good secretary and 2) distribute a draft version of the minutes in advance of the meeting. The minutes should reflect the actions that were approved, commonly achieved by reporting verbatim the final language of all resolutions that were approved. Generally, the minutes should not reflect points that were raised in discussion and should not list various procedural motions that were applied during deliberation (limiting debate, amendments, etc.). The person making the motion is often named. However, unless required in the governing documents, the member seconding the motion need not be listed. Editorial comments and opinions are generally not appropriate for inclusion in minutes.
In the inefficient meeting, the presiding officer will allow “a minute or two” to review the minutes. It will then be asked if there are corrections to the minutes, while again pausing for an interval. The presiding officer will ask for a motion to approve the minutes, then ask for a second, and finally for a vote to approve them. This exercise can take precious minutes away from other items of business. In an efficient meeting, assuming the draft minutes were distributed in advance of the meeting, approving them should be relatively straightforward. First, to allow for corrections to the minutes, the presiding officer can simply ask, “Are there any corrections to the minutes?” After a brief pause, the presiding officer can then state, “If there is no objection, the minutes are approved as presented” (or “as corrected,” if that is the case). If no one objects, the minutes are approved, which can be so stated by the presiding officer, and the next item of business can be addressed.
3. Whenever appropriate, assume general consent
In the above example of approval of the minutes, the presiding officer assumed that no one would oppose approval of the minutes, referred to in parliamentary terms as “assuming general consent.” For items the presiding officer believes will be non-controversial, they may state it in the form of, “If there is no objection, the motion to accomplish X is approved.” If no one objects, it has the same effect as a unanimous vote in the affirmative, but is generally more efficient than proceeding through debate and a subsequent vote. If a single member voices opposition to the motion that is proposed under general consent, then the motion must be voted upon by the assembly. As a caveat, there is some risk that an assertive presiding officer leading a passive assembly could abuse this principle and force items through without debate or vote. However, so long as a single member is willing to express his or her opposition, this risk is avoided.
I hope these few items will prove useful to you. All the above comments are consistent with the American Institute of Parliamentarians Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure. Please note that none of the items listed above take precedence over any conflicting rule in an organization’s accepted parliamentary authority, standing rules of order, bylaws or other governing documents. Of course, all governing documents are subservient to legal authority.
Ronald L. Harter, M.D. is the Jacoby Professor and Chair, Department of Anesthesiology, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus.