As Council battles, noted parliamentarian offers primer on rules

Most members of the Batesburg-Leesville Town Council stand and pledge allegiance to the flag at the start of the December monthly meeting.

 

When the Batesburg-Leesville Town Council gets back to work at its next scheduled monthly meeting on Monday, Jan. 10, there will be several pieces of unfinished business on their desks.

Whether that unaddressed work gets done will depend largely on whether members of Council can tone down or avoid altogether the shouting matches that punctuated – and ultimately forced the adjournment of — their December meeting. It also will depend on whether the members choose to stay on task and stick to the rules of order that govern most elected bodies in America.

Batesburg-Leesville Town Council is among those representative governments that, under ideal circumstances, are called upon to strictly adhere to the guidelines outlined in Robert’s Rules of Order. In fact, Section 1-3-3 of the Town’s Code of Ordinances states that, “except as otherwise required by state law or local ordinance, all proceedings of the council shall be governed by Robert’s Rules of Order (current edition) and the municipal attorney shall act as parliamentarian.”

Robert’s Rules of Order was first published in 1876 by then-Maj. Henry Martyn Robert, an Army officer. Maj. Robert saw a need for processes and procedures to govern the work of and to keep order in meetings of non-legislative bodies, so he set about adapting the rules and practices of the U.S. House of Representatives for everyday use by municipal governments, school boards, club committees and other organized bodies.

The current edition of Robert’s Rules of Order was published in 2011.

The Town of Batesburg-Leesville’s code of ordinance further states that “the presiding officer, without debate, will decide questions of order.” In the case of Batesburg-Leesville Town Council, the presiding officer for meetings is Mayor Lancer Shull.

Town Attorney Chris Spradley serves as the on-site parliamentarian for Council meetings.

Section 1-3-6 of the ordinance expands on the way order is to be kept during Town Council meetings. It states that “every member of the council when about to speak shall address the mayor as ‘Mr. or Madam Mayor’ and in speaking shall avoid all disrespect to the council and all personalities, and shall confine himself to the subject under consideration.”

However, during the December meeting, as chaos began to overtake the proceedings, at least two members of Council leveled personal attacks at the mayor, and one Councilman (who shall remain nameless, so that his actions do not garner him unwarranted publicity and personal gratification) openly called Town Attorney Spradley “a crooked lawyer.”

In the wake of the December meeting’s chaos, The Twin-City News reached out to the National Association of Parliamentarians for an objective assessment of how Batesburg-Leesville conducts its business in light of standard parliamentary practices. Tim Wynn, who serves as Head Parliamentarian for the United States Conference of Mayors, chief advisor to the National Association of Parliamentarians and Vice-President of the organization’s electronic division, took the case.

The Twin-City News provided Mr. Wynn with links to three YouTube videos published by the Town with footage from the December meeting.

“After reviewing portions of the video that you provided of the meeting, I will offer the following general comments on parliamentary law, which should prove beneficial to the council and those interested in the part parliamentary law plays in the proceedings of assemblies,” Mr Wynn wrote.

On personal attacks against Council members and others by members of Town Council: “When a question is pending, a member can condemn the nature or likely consequences of the proposed measure in strong terms, but he must avoid personalities, and under no circumstances can he attack or question the motives of another member. The measure, not the member, is the subject of debate. If a member disagrees with a statement by another in regard to an event that both witnessed, he cannot state in debate that the other’s statement ‘is false.’  But he might say, ‘I believe there is strong evidence that the member is mistaken.’ The moment the chair hears such words as ‘fraud,’ ‘liar,’ or ‘lie’ used about a member in debate, he must act immediately and decisively to correct the matter and prevent its repetition.” (RONR, 11th ed., p. 392, line 13-25)

Also, on the issue of personal attacks by members of Town Council: “Debate must be confined to the merits of the pending question. Speakers must address their remarks to the chair, maintain a courteous tone, and — especially in reference to any divergence of opinion — should avoid injecting a personal note into debate. To this end, they must never attack or make any allusion to the motives of members. As already noted, speakers should refer to officers only by title and should avoid the mention of other members’ names as much as possible.” (RONR, 11th ed., p. 43, lines 15-22)

On interrupting and talking over other members of Town Council: “Before a member in an assembly can make a motion or speak in debate …he must obtain the floor; that is, he must be recognized by the chair as having the exclusive right to be heard at that time. The chair must recognize any member who seeks the floor while entitled to it.” (RONR, 11th ed., p. 29, lines 11-18); and, “Although the presiding officer should give close attention to each speaker’s remarks during debate, he cannot interrupt the person who has the floor so long as the person does not violate any of the assembly’s rules and no disorder arises. The presiding officer must never interrupt a speaker simply because he knows more about the matter than the speaker does.” – (RONR, 11th ed., p. 43, line 31 – p. 44, line 5)

Also, on the issue of Town Council members’ interrupting and talking out of order: “If at any time the presiding officer rises to make a ruling, give information, or otherwise speak within his privilege, any member who is speaking should be seated (or should step back slightly if he is standing at a microphone some distance from a seat) until the presiding officer has finished. At that time the member can resume his speech, unless he is denied the right as a disciplinary measure.” (RONR, 11th ed., p. 394, lines 2-8)

On straying from the specifics of any issue before Town Council: “In debate a member’s remarks must be germane to the question before the assembly — that is, his statements must have bearing on whether the immediately pending motion should be adopted.” (RONR, 11th ed., p. 392, lines 6-9)

Contacted by The Twin-City News for comment on Mr. Wynn’s assessment, all but one member of Town Council did not respond to the newspaper’s request. The only reply was from veteran Councilman Olin Gambrell, who has served on Town Council since 2017 and was the original Town Manager for the combined municipality when the Batesburg and Leesville consolidated in 1993.

“Oh my, it seems that we, the council, have a problem,” Councilman Gambrell wrote in an e-mail.

In wrapping up his assessment, Mr. Wynn quoted again from Robert’s Rules of Order, page 454:

“The larger the assembly, the more readily it will detect the slightest weakness in a presiding officer. Efforts to capitalize on any such failing may follow with sometimes disastrous results. It is often said that knowledge is strength, and certainly that is true in this case… There is no acceptable alternative to parliamentary procedure for the conduct of business in a deliberative assembly; yet many presiding officers try to get along with a minimum of knowledge. This approach inevitably results in signs of unsureness…The presiding officer must not permit members to press on so rapidly that the parliamentary steps are abridged or go unobserved.”

Is the Batesburg-Leesville Town Council actually capable of adhering to accepted principles of parliamentary procedure? Will they, in fact, choose to play by these long-established rules?

Only time will tell – but now, the world is watching how Batesburg-Leesville behaves.

Story by Tony Baughman / Published December 29, 2019