Parliamentary Procedure in Local Government

Daniel W. Fitzpatrick

As a city manager with more than thirty years of service, city council meetings are a way of life. In the background of all governing body meetings are the rules of parliamentary procedure. Until I began a formal study of parliamentary procedure, I was in the dark about its origins, fundamental principles, and overall benefits.

This article will review the history of parliamentary procedure, its basic principles, and how using it correctly will benefit both governing body members and the public.

There is no record of parliamentary procedure (law) before 750 B.C. The idea for parliamentary law began with the idea of self-government instituted by the Greeks. The Athens Agora, or general assembly, held scheduled meetings, a quorum was necessary to conduct business, votes were taken by a show of hands or a type of ballot, and most decisions were by majority vote. Governing rules were further developed by the Romans around 450 B.C. for use in the Roman Forum. The first record of filibustering (a delaying tactic) was in the Roman Republic.

Two thousand years after the Greeks and Romans instituted the concept of parliamentary law and democratic processes, parliamentary procedure was developed as a science in the British Parliament of the thirteenth century. They developed such principles as considering only one subject at a time, alternating between pro and con during debate, and confining debate to the merits of pending questions.

When the young colonies of the United States needed rules of democratic assembly, they imported the rules used by the British Parliament. The word “parliamentary” is a derivative of the French word parler—to speak, discuss, or deliberate.

Our nation’s first Parliamentarian was Thomas Jefferson. Seeing that the British rules were not adequate for the new nation, he authored the nation’s first rules of Parliamentary Procedure, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States. Jefferson described his intentions for the manual, “I have begun a sketch, which those who come after me will successively correct and fill up, till a code of rules shall be formed for the use of the Senate, the effects of which may be accuracy, uniformity, and impartiality.” The Parliamentary Rules used in Congress today are result of Jefferson’s first work. The book is still in print and is now titled Jefferson’s Manual.

As the new country grew, its social institutions began to develop. Jefferson’s Manual was not applicable to the many charitable, political, social, religious, and professional organizations that were rapidly expanding throughout America. A first attempt to develop a manual was made by Luther Cushing, Clerk of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

It was during the Civil War that a young army officer was to make a decision that would have a profound impact on modern parliamentary law. Henry M. Robert, a graduate of West Point, accepted an invitation to preside at a meeting. The resulting chaos caused by misbehaving participants dedicated the young Robert to the study of parliamentary law.

In 1876 Robert wrote the Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies. This self-published work was the beginning of the most widely used manual today, Roberts’ Rules of Order Newly Revised (RONR). RONR is used by more than 90 percent of all deliberative assemblies in the United States. RONR is updated every 10 years, with the latest addition in 2011.

Other parliamentary authorities in use today are The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure (Standard Code) by Alice Sturgis, revised by the American Institute of Parliamentarians. Standard Code is regarded as a welcome, simple,  and streamlined guide as compared to RONR. Mason’s Manual was developed for State Legislatures and is used by many but not all state legislative bodies. (The New Hampshire Legislature uses Mason’s.)

The basic theory of parliamentary law is to provide a guide to avoid the confusion and chaos that results when everyone does as they please. To quote General Robert, “Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least real liberty.” The goals are to protect minority members by allowing debate on all issues; and to protect absent members by providing proper notice of fundamental changes, all while allowing for the full expression of the will of the majority. The very foundation of democracy and self-government calls for the minority, no matter how certain they are of their position, to consent to the rule of the majority.

The theory and goals of parliamentary laws result in the underlying principles of parliamentary procedure. The following rules are common to all of the Parliamentary Procedure authorities.

The organization is paramount compared to the individual. The purpose of all parliamentary rules is to protect the organization. The process trumps the results. In parliamentary law, the end can never justify the means; in fact the means are paramount.

All members are equal. The tendency of group dynamics can lead to unfair treatment of certain participants. As George Orwell noted in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Parliamentary Procedure properly applied assures equal treatment for all participants.

A quorum must be present to legally conduct business. As a city manager, I have witnessed the difficulty of assembling a quorum, sometimes at the very occasion you need it the most. However, this requirement prevents the agenda from being hijacked by a minority.

Only one main proposal may be considered at a time. Imagine the confusion if we debated or voted on more than one issue at a time. One main motion with the appropriate secondary motions to assist the deliberative process assures a focus and an efficient process.

Only one member may speak at a time. One issue at a time and one speaker at a time. It may seem like common sense, but we have all witnessed discussions where the group descends into the chaos of many persons speaking at the same time. It is the duty of the presiding officer to assure that all members have the ability to be heard.

Debate is allowed on all motions, unless forbidden. All main motions (i.e., motions of policy) allow for debate. Secondary motions authorized in the adopted parliamentary authority may not allow debate. For example, the motion to call the question is not debatable because debate would defeat its purpose. Since a call for the question cuts off debate and requires an immediate vote, it requires a two-thirds vote. Debate would defeat the purpose of the secondary motions to adjourn, recess, or lay on the table.

Parliamentary law insists on dignity in debate. Member’s names may not be used and personal criticism is out of order. No matter how hotly contested an issue may be, we still have to live with our colleagues after the issue is resolved.

A question, once decided, cannot come back for reconsideration during the same session. Imagine the confusion, frustration, and time wasted if motions contradicting recently passed motions (within the same meeting or session) were allowed. The minority with two votes could tie-up a meeting indefinitely.

A majority vote decides, unless a greater percentage is called for. In non-government organizations, majority votes decide most decisions unless the bylaws or the parliamentary authority provides otherwise. Municipalities being subject to state laws (Dillon’s Rule) as well as their own charters and bylaws are more restricted. General resolutions and ordinances usually require a majority vote, with a two-thirds vote required for bonding.

When people find out I am an accredited parliamentarian, they usually have a question about one rule or another. My first response is to always ask what parliamentary procedure their organization has adopted.

Most organizations name a parliamentary authority in their bylaws. Many states require organizations to select a parliamentary authority. Some local governments name a parliamentary authority in their bylaws or charters. The majority of local governments use Robert’s Rules of Order. I have personal knowledge of one city that uses Standard Code.

It is incumbent on all members of a representative body to understand the basic rules of their respective parliamentary authority. It is especially important for the presiding officer to have a working knowledge of the parliamentary rules. This enables the presiding offer to lead the group toward productive meetings.

Many people are intimidated by the 669 pages of RONR, with another 48 pages of charts. RONR’s size and complexity should not be a problem. Unless one is a professional parliamentarian, the shorter Robert’s Rules of Order, In Brief should be sufficient. This summary guide addresses most situations that the average governing body would encounter, all within 197 pages, graphs included.

Daniel W. Fitzpatrick, ICMA-CM, PRP, is City Manager for the City of Rochester. Contact Dan at or 603.332.1167.