Parliamentary Procedure for Local Government: What’s Your Procedure?

Municipal Law Alert, May 2010

Lawyers are not generally parliamentarians, but municipal lawyers are often called upon to advise clients regarding proper parliamentary procedure. Before giving advice on parliamentary procedure, everyone must understand what rules apply. There is little guidance on parliamentary procedure in the state statutes. Typically, a local municipal body conducts itself in accordance with its ordinances and bylaws instead of state law.

As a general matter, except with respect to a few mandatory procedures, state statutes are silent regarding procedural requirements for local governments. Wisconsin Stat. §§ 62.11(3)(e) and 61.32 provide cities and villages, respectively, with relatively broad authority to adopt parliamentary procedures for regulating meetings and actions. Thus, most municipalities have adopted ordinances that set forth the parliamentary procedure to be followed in that municipality.

Many people may believe that adoption of Robert’s Rules of Order is compelled. It is not. However, many municipalities have adopted some version of Robert’s Rules. Some municipalities simply adopt the revised version of Robert’s Rules. For example, § 23-6 of the City of Hudson’s Code provides that the proceedings of the meeting shall be conducted “in accordance with the parliamentary rules contained in Robert’s Rules of Order Revised, unless otherwise provided by statute or by these rules.” While the ease of completely adopting Robert’s Rules is attractive, there are some drawbacks. The latest revised version is over 700 pages long and is very formal, complicated and technical. Thus, some municipalities have opted to be governed by less formal rules. For example, the Town of St. Croix Falls has adopted A Guide to Parliamentary Procedure for Local Governments in Wisconsin (Larry E. Larmer, 1998) as its primary guide to procedure. In addition, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities has published two handbooks that could be adopted: The Conduct of Common Council Meetings and The Conduct of Village Board Meetings. Each of these books contains model ordinances establishing rules of procedure for common counsels and village boards.

Regardless of which method is chosen, it is important to keep in mind that none of these supplemental materials can vary state statutes. Thus, for example, if any of these books conflict with Wisconsin’s open meetings or public records laws, state law trumps. It is also important to keep in mind that some rules have been interpreted by Wisconsin courts. For example, the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Board of Supervisors of Oconto County v. Hall, 47 Wis. 208, 2 N.W. 291 (1879) held that a quorum must actually vote on a matter. In Hall, there was a quorum present at the meeting. However, on a particular issue, the votes of two of the members could not be counted as a result of a conflict of interest. This resulted in the reduction of qualified voters to less than a quorum (even though there was a quorum present at the meeting). Holding that the vote failed for lack of a quorum, the Court stated:

When a vote is taken and the result shows that no quorum has voted, the vote is not declared, and proceedings on the order or business are suspended until a quorum can be obtained; and it is quite immaterial that there is a quorum actually present if no quorum votes. Id. at 296.

Rules should not be adopted just for the sake of adopting rules. Instead, adopting good, clear rules of procedure provides local governments with a host of benefits. In his introduction to A Guide to Parliamentary Procedure for Local Governments in Wisconsin, Larry Larmer stated: “Such rules promote fairness, equality, and order so that members of local government units can deliberate on equal footing and so that their constituents will be fairly represented.” Our experience as local government lawyers bears this out. If everyone has an opportunity to be heard and everyone is subject to the same rules, acrimony and discord are minimized, while efficiency and effectiveness are maximized.

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