Luskin: Robert's Rules
Henry Martyn Robert lived from 1837 until 1923, and while I don’t know if he ever set foot in Vermont, his influence in this state is significant. He’s the army corps of engineers officer who wrote the manual on parliamentary procedure that governs Town Meeting in Vermont.
What started as a list of rules for governing deliberative assemblies short enough to fit on a slip of paper that General Robert could carry in his wallet is now more than seven hundred pages in its newest, revised edition just off the press.
As stated in the introduction to this eleventh edition, “the application of parliamentary law is the best method yet devised to enable assemblies of any size, with due regard for every member’s opinion, to arrive at the general will on the maximum number of questions of varying complexity in a minimum amount of time and under all kinds of internal climate ranging from total harmony to hardened or impassioned division of opinion.”
That’s the theory, anyway.
In my town, we do our best, but it’s hard when so few know more than the rudimentary principles of parliamentary procedure. I was among that group until I was elected Town Moderator; since then, I’ve attended workshops on Robert’s Rules as well as studied them on my own.
I wish I could say that Robert’s Rules was riveting reading; I can say it’s a reliable, non-medical cure for insomnia – until just before Town Meeting. With the first Tuesday in March fast approaching, I find myself wide-awake and worried, trying to cram the Orders of the Day into my head.
It’s fair to ask why anyone would willingly put themselves in the uncomfortable position of standing in front of one’s neighbors while they argue the pros and cons of town salaries, new equipment, and the social services we support through taxation.
My discomfort, however, is insignificant compared to the benefits of direct democracy. We don’t just make better community decisions by deliberating together; I think we make for better community.
But when the voters are insecure about the procedures of debate, the quality of debate suffers. As Town Moderator, my job is not just to know Robert’s Rules, but also to teach them, and I’m glad to do so. But with Vermont’s proud history of self-government, I think we can – and should – do more to insure our local democracy endures.
I think every Vermont voter should learn basic parliamentary procedure. For instance, speakers are supposed to address their remarks to the moderator. This simple protocol helps keep discussion about the issues and helps prevent it from deteriorating into a personal altercation. With knowledge of the rules, voters can improve articles by amending them, dividing them, or even reconsidering them after a vote.
After all, the purpose of Robert’s Rules is to make deliberation fair – and to allow our discussions to be both passionate – and polite.