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Parliamentary Procedure Blog

While preparing this article, I had to ask myself the question, why would anyone be interested in the duties of a parliamentarian? A few answers came to mind; perhaps they want to serve as a parliamentarian, they are uncomfortable with their present parliamentarian, they have no clue what a parliamentarian does, or they just want to confirm how easy it is to serve as a parliamentarian. Hopefully, this blog will answer all of those questions, with the exception of the last comment. Being a parliamentarian may appear to be easy, but as you will see—it is not.

I really like how Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th Edition, pages 466 – 467, clearly defines the duties of the parliamentarian. It states that in order to have an effective meeting, to prevent problems that may arise, etc., the president and the parliamentarian meet before the meeting. Also there is “no set rule for the number of additional functions a parliamentarian may be asked to perform…” From experiences, both good and bad, I’ve learned that it is absolutely essential that a parliamentarian meet with the president, CEO, or presiding officer to come up with a plan on how to run the meeting.

From previous articles, I have briefly discussed the duties of parliamentarians. You know that the jobs are unique and varied. If you have acquired the knowledge and skills of a Professional Registered Parliamentarian, your time spent can be rewarding and enjoyable. You, as a parliamentarian, must know the expectations of the hiring organization and your limitations. For example, parliamentarians are advisors or consultants; they do not make decisions or rulings. Only the chair or presiding officer can make rulings. The parliamentarian is an advisor and is impartial when giving advice. To put it concisely, the parliamentarian’s job is to make the presiding officer, the chair, “look good.” If it requires you to write scripts for the presiding officer, you do it. If it requires you to completely review the agenda with the presiding officer and his/her team, you do it. If it requires you to teach a course in parliamentary procedure, you do it. If it requires you to strategize with the presiding officer and his/her team over contentious issues, such as how to handle disruptive and belligerent members, you do it. You do all of this in a discreet manner. You do not participate in debate. Remember, your job is to make that presiding officer “look good.” The true test of your success as a parliamentarian is when the meeting runs efficiently, effectively, and everyone lauds the skill in which the presiding officer presided. I serve as a parliamentarian for several organizations. The presiding officers are all different. My job is to make each one of them “look good.” I meet with each presiding officer and with their teams if they are training their teams and want the team members to understand the “behind the scene” activities. We strategize and plan for each contingency. Scripts are prepared for each item on the agenda and the appropriate motions are prepared in advance. We are quite proactive and thoroughly discuss each agenda item. My belief again is, “it is better to be prepared and not have an opportunity, then to have an opportunity and not be prepared.” I look at each event, where I serve as a parliamentarian, as an opportunity to excel and my presiding officers have been “looking good” for a very long time.

As mentioned earlier, observing a skilled parliamentarian at work, may give the impression that the job is easy. It is easy if you have acquired the skills and knowledge to perform the duties of a parliamentarian. It can actually be “fun.” Now, I know that some of you may say to yourselves, he’s suffering from some type of “brain damage.” Well, I truly believe that it can be fun. It’s a simply thing of insuring that the will of the majority is carried out and the minority is always heard…and each is respectful of the other. It causes me great concern, when some parliamentarians become “technical idiots.” They cannot relate to the presiding officer or the needs of the organization. They interrupt the proceedings, they continually try to correct something that has already been done and they take themselves too seriously. Our communication should be discreet to the presiding officer, yet clear and quite simplistic for all to understand, when asked to give advice and answer questions.

A few years ago, I served as a parliamentarian for a nonprofit organization. I had been the parliamentarian for a number of years and I had asked a fellow parliamentarian to serve in my stead when I had previous commitments. The incoming president and I had discussed being the organization’s parliamentarian and I was going to fill the position within the next two months. Before the end of the two months, the presiding officer and I had a major disagreement and I tendered my resignation. The parliamentarian, who had filled the position in my absence, was appointed as the parliamentarian. I subsequently discovered that the parliamentarian who had filled my position secretly coveted the position of parliamentarian. We will not discuss the ethical violations that occurred, but he achieved his goal. Months into the position, he realized that performing the duties of a parliamentarian required a lot of preparation and work. It required meeting the presiding officer, briefing the credential officials, etc. He was not prepared. The fiasco occurred in one of the biannual meetings. Questions were coming at the presiding officer, one right after the other. The parliamentarian had to research the questions and provide answers and advice to the president. He could not do it in a timely manner. The president was frustrated. The assembly was agitated. The president called a recess to try and resolve the issues. Both the president and my parliamentarian friend were at a loss. During the recess, I slowly walked to the table, gave him a note on how to handle the issues and went back to my seat. The recess ended, the meeting resumed with some semblance of order. The questions were answered and the meeting ended almost two hours behind schedule.

The parliamentarian, who I had previously considered to be a friend, subsequently tried to apologize in his own way. He never said the words, “I’m sorry.” But I know by his body language and our subsequent interactions that he was. It was hard for him; he just could not get the words out. My acquaintance passed less than 2 years later; they found him in his apartment. He was a young man, very ambitious, and bright. He had a lot to give and never had a chance to…from my perspective. I often wonder -- should I have talked to him about the issue. Too often in our lives we ponder about something that we should or should not do, especially in a damaged relationship. Sometimes, we do not get a second chance to make a difference and both could benefit from just one person taking the first step.

The duties of a parliamentarian are not easy. If you prepare, acquire the skills necessary to be credible, and realize that your job is to assist that presiding officer and the organization; you will be successful as you perform the duties of a parliamentarian. Otherwise, performing these duties can be quite daunting.

As we have discussed, not all parliamentarians are the same. Hence, organizations must determine whether they need or do not need a parliamentarian. The sad fact is that many organizations do not know what a parliamentarian does or how to hire a parliamentarian, if one is required. Please refer to my blog on “Should I Hire a Parliamentarian” for more on that topic. Briefly, if your meetings last for an inordinate amount of time, if significant issues never seem to be resolved, and if you have the same people continually dominating your meetings and getting their way at the expense of the majority, you probably need a parliamentarian. Normally, the president should be free to appoint a person in whom he/she has confidence.

Not too long ago, I was hired by the presiding officer of a national organization. The presiding officer was running for office and there was a great possibility that the presiding officer’s position was going to be contested by a candidate running for the position from the floor (delegates present). To compound matters, it was believed that the organization’s parliamentarian was the spouse of the person who was going to be the nominated candidate. The presiding officer contacted me and I reviewed the organization’s governing documents. We reviewed and corrected the presiding officer’s script and strategized how to handle each possible scenario that might occur during the convention. During the meeting, significant issues did arise and we were prepared. The presiding officer handled each issue with tact and professionalism. She also advised the assembly of why I was appointed and that my fee was not being paid by the organization. The presiding officer was strong and confident—the believed candidate chose not to run from the floor. The meeting was conducted flawlessly.

In order to perform the duties of a parliamentarian flawlessly, it requires time, work and effort of the parliamentarian’s part. Most of the parliamentarian’s work will be done in advance, outside of the meeting. Therefore, it’s imperative that the parliamentarian be appointed as early as possible. As I have stated before, performing the duties as a parliamentarian may appear to be easy -- and it is, if you get the credentials, plan, practice, and prepare for each event -- and it can actually be fun. Tell me, does your organization need a parliamentarian…I know a really good one!!!

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