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Of whom may members of the body ask questions


Guest affinis
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These questions relate to procedure on a city committee. In the absence of a standing rule, the committee is governed by Robert's Rules, and there appear to be no specific city standing rules that apply to the following questions.

1. Whom may a committee member ask questions of, to obtain clarifying information, during deliberation? Specifically, it was asserted by an Assistant City Attorney that committee members can only ask questions of city staff, and not of any members of the public who are attending. This arose after a committee member asked questions of a member of the public who was highly knowledgable about the topic and had earlier spoken during the public comment period (at the beginning of the meeting). Is there any basis for this claim in Robert's Rules (that there cannot be queries directed to a member of the public during deliberation)?

2. The Assistant City Attorney also indicated that during deliberation, any side conversation between a committee member and a member of the public was a violation of proper procedure. This concerns a whispered side conversation with a committee member (conveying information) that in no way interrupted deliberation. Is there anything in Robert's or general rules of decorum that prohibits this?

3. Under Robert's, would city staff who are not committee members have a right to speak when not asked a question? I ask this since the Assistant City Attorney (a city staffperson who is not a member of the committee) and other city staff allied with her routinely participate in the committee deliberation, asserting the same right to initiate speech as committee members (i.e. the city staff raise their hands and are called on, identically to committee members).

Basically, the Assistant City Attorney opposed passage of measures that members of the public (who were attending) favored. And the Assistant City Attorney sought to prevent information flow from members of the public to committee members during the deliberation period, so that only city staff (who all opposed passage of the measures) could provide information and arguments to committee members. I'll note that in other city meetings, I've seen committee members routinely ask questions of members of the public, and I've routinely seen side conversations occur between committee members and other people who were attending. 

The claims the Assistant City Attorney was making (points 1 and 2) seemed fishy to me, but I lack sufficient background in Robert's Rules.

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19 minutes ago, Guest affinis said:

Is there any basis for this claim in Robert's Rules (that there cannot be queries directed to a member of the public during deliberation)?

The rules may be suspended to allow a nonmember to speak in debate. This would require a two-thirds vote. However, it appears that what you're describing might be far less intrusive than allowing a nonmember to join in debate and might be allowable by a majority vote. In practice, these matters are usually handled without a vote at all, unless a member objects.  

19 minutes ago, Guest affinis said:

This concerns a whispered side conversation with a committee member (conveying information) that in no way interrupted deliberation. Is there anything in Robert's or general rules of decorum that prohibits this?

So long as the meeting isn't being interrupted, there is no rule in RONR that would prohibit communication between a member and a nonmember.

 

19 minutes ago, Guest affinis said:

Under Robert's, would city staff who are not committee members have a right to speak when not asked a question?

No, according to Robert's Rules of Order, only members of the committee have a RIGHT to be recognized and to speak in debate. The committee is free to allow it, though, the vote for allowing it determined by what exactly is being allowed. 

Ultimately, you should ask whoever is telling you what can and can't be done to show you the specific rule. Fortunately, all your questions revolve around Robert's Rules of Order. However, there are certainly additional rules that govern your meetings, and it's possible some of those rules say something very different. 

Edited by Tim Wynn
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Guest Affinis' first question seems to relate to a Request for Information, with the notable exception that the request is being made of a non-member of the body that is meeting rather than a member. Does that distinction really require that the request be handled as an instance where Suspending the Rules is necessary, or could the request be processed through the very relaxed procedure normally used of going through the chair, but not even require a vote?

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I've encountered more than one such attorney in my travels.  The rules that apply to members of the public being heard apply equally to the attorney.  As non-members of the committee, their right to speak and even attend is conditioned upon the permission of the committee.  If he monopolizes debate (giving commentary after each committee member speaks) make a point of order that he should not be recognized until others wishing to speak have done so, or better yet, not speak unless asked question. 

Indeed, he has no right to recognition at all, nor do other staff members, although it is common to relax these rules as long as they are not abused.  But when they are abused, the committee should take control of its own meeting.

Also, I think that a Request for Information could be used to ask a question of a member of the public, just as it could to ask a question of a staff member.  I'd ask the attorney for a citation for that rule he claims applies.

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On 6/30/2018 at 11:17 AM, Bruce Lages said:

Guest Affinis' first question seems to relate to a Request for Information, with the notable exception that the request is being made of a non-member of the body that is meeting rather than a member. Does that distinction really require that the request be handled as an instance where Suspending the Rules is necessary, or could the request be processed through the very relaxed procedure normally used of going through the chair, but not even require a vote?

It seems to me that a Request for Information could be used to ask a question of a nonmember, however, if a member of the assembly objected, a vote would need to be taken. Since a response to a a Request for Information is not debate, however, I think a majority vote would be sufficient.

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20 minutes ago, Josh Martin said:

It seems to me that a Request for Information could be used to ask a question of a nonmember, however, if a member of the assembly objected, a vote would need to be taken. Since a response to a a Request for Information is not debate, however, I think a majority vote would be sufficient.

I will agree with the exception of nonmember officers.  The text seems to cover of officers whether or not they are members.

I would think, however, that the time used up in answering the question would be deducted from the member asking the question. 

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Thank you all for your responses. They're most helpful.
I reviewed video of the meeting. 
A city staffperson, who was a nonmember, interjected with "Point of order".
She then said she wanted a legal opinion from the Assistant City Attorney (who is also a nonmember). This clearly must have been prearranged, since the Assistant City Attorney then provided the "answer" even though no actual question was asked. The intent of the gambit clearly appears to have been to block any information flow from members of the public (e.g. in response to queries from committee members) which might influence committee member votes.

In her "answer", the Assistant City Attorney informed the committee that committee debate time was "for discussion among staff. And then you can ask staff questions, but not the community members." She also informed the committee that committee members cannot have side conversations with any community members while debate is ongoing. I'll note that none of the city staff are committee members. 

There appear to be no city procedural rules that justify the Assistant City Attorney's assertions. Other than for specific city standing rules, the committee is supposed to be procedurally governed by Robert's Rules.

The claim that committee debate time was time for "discussion among staff" seems especially odd. The committee has never adopted a rule to allow staff to be recognized and speak during debate - the city staff have just asserted that right. A former member of the city council told me that on a different committee, she'd been forced to call a city staffperson out of order for this, and it was upheld. City staff can sometimes dominate the debate (seeking to bring about their preferred vote outcome).

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8 minutes ago, Guest affinis said:

A city staffperson, who was a nonmember, interjected with "Point of order".

Non-members may not raise points of order.

8 minutes ago, Guest affinis said:

She then said she wanted a legal opinion from the Assistant City Attorney (who is also a nonmember).

This is not a point of order.

9 minutes ago, Guest affinis said:

In her "answer", the Assistant City Attorney informed the committee that committee debate time was "for discussion among staff. And then you can ask staff questions, but not the community members."

Even if there is an applicable procedural statute causing this to make some sort of sense (committee debate time is for the committee, not for non-member staff), it is up to the chair to make rulings as to proper procedure, not the ACA. Furthermore, while the chair may seek advice from anyone he wishes, no one may provide advice on parliamentary procedure without being asked - especially non-members.

10 minutes ago, Guest affinis said:

She also informed the committee that committee members cannot have side conversations with any community members while debate is ongoing.

Well, it's true enough that any side conversation, including with non-members, is a breach of etiquette, but she shouldn't have been speaking at this point at all.

11 minutes ago, Guest affinis said:

There appear to be no city procedural rules that justify the Assistant City Attorney's assertions. Other than for specific city standing rules, the committee is supposed to be procedurally governed by Robert's Rules.

There might be state laws or local ordinances. Often these spell out, in mind-numbing detail, elements of public hearings and the like.

12 minutes ago, Guest affinis said:

The claim that committee debate time was time for "discussion among staff" seems especially odd. The committee has never adopted a rule to allow staff to be recognized and speak during debate - the city staff have just asserted that right. A former member of the city council told me that on a different committee, she'd been forced to call a city staffperson out of order for this, and it was upheld. City staff can sometimes dominate the debate (seeking to bring about their preferred vote outcome).

Staff will only dominate the debate (and generally will do so) when the actual members, who are in positions of public trust, allow them to do so. In my opinion, it is a violation of the public trust to allow this.

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Personally, by the way, I wouldn't bother asking a non-member who is making assertions about procedure for a citation or justification for her claims. I'd just raise a point of order that non-members may only speak with permission, and that there is not unanimous consent to allow this particular interruption since I am objecting, so if the committee wishes to allow its employees to boss it around, it will need to vote to do so - and, if this committee is elected, this abdication to employees is something voters should consider.

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