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Clark: Robert's Rules

Mark Bushnell, courtesy
Middlesex Town Moderator Susan Clark has noticed renewed appreciation for the civility of Vermont's local democratic traditions.

A neighbor told me recently that his fifth-grade son was interested in Town Meeting. “He wants to learn more about – what’s that ‘order’ thing?” “Robert’s Rules of Order?” I asked, a little incredulously.

“That’s it!” he said. “He wants to know how they work.”

“Well, send him on over!” I said.

Interest in parliamentary procedure from a 5th-grader was a first for me. But as a facilitator and town moderator, I’ve seen increasing concern about how we can be civil together.

Democratically speaking, we’re currently experiencing perilous driving conditions. National leaders seem more committed to ideological positioning than to finding a common route forward. Unscrupulous media pundits heckle from the backseat. And Russian bots are using social media to distract us with wildly polarizing fake opinions – expressly designed to make democracy crash and burn.

In such hazardous conditions, I appreciate tried-and-true process rules. Like well placed road signs, formal rules help keep democracy from skidding out of control.

People often complain that Robert’s Rules are too rigid:
Only speak if recognized.
Only talk about the current article.
Your amendments must be germane.

I’m sympathetic. As a meeting facilitator, I know communities need brainstorming meetings and creative engagement throughout the year. But when it's time for a few hundred diverse folks to come together and make final decisions, Robert’s Rules have advantages. They’re firm. They’re predictable. They protect the rights of the minority, yet allow us to move forward with the will of the majority.

Likewise, the League of Women Voters has spent decades perfecting a candidate forum structure that’s built for rocky terrain. Their firm protocol keeps everyone engaged, but focused on the issues.

With a well designed process, I have literally watched from the podium  as people moved from fearful, closed-minded distrust, into engaging appreciatively with the issues. When people know they can trust the process, they often relax gratefully into productive citizen-mode - listening respectfully, providing thoughtful opinions, and offering their best selves.

Time-honored rules of order help us avoid head-on collisions. But like the white lines on our highways, these rules are just guidelines. They don’t actually keep cars in their lanes. Only the drivers can do that.

This year, I’ll be sure that my fifth-grade neighbor has an active helping role at our Town Meeting. Democratically, he’s a beginning driver. But his interest in the democratic rules of the road gives me hope.

Susan Clark is a facilitator, educator, and the co-author of "Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home." She is also Town Moderator of Middlesex, Vermont.
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