Lost the vote? Don’t sabotage the council’s action

(c) Can Stock Photo / iqoncept

© Can Stock Photo/berkut

We’ve had inquiries recently about elected officials who lost a vote, and then actively worked against the outcome. This amounts to trying to sabotage the council. It is wrong, wrong, wrong.

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The majority rules

General Henry Martyn Robert, the original author of Robert’s Rules of Order, expresses it this way:

The great lesson for democracies to learn is for the majority to give to the minority a full, free opportunity to present their side of the case, and then for the minority, having failed to win a majority to their views, gracefully to submit and to recognize the action as that of the entire organization, and cheerfully to assist in carrying it out, until they can secure its repeal.  Quoted in Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th edition, p. xlvii

This is a fundamental principle of our system of government. It is embedded in our common law heritage, and our entire society. Government and its administration cannot function optimally, cannot best serve the citizens, and cannot advance, if the very people who are elected to serve choose to pursue their own private views against the decision of the body they belong to. When elected officials “go rogue” and work against their organization’s action, they are violating their fiduciary duties of loyalty and obedience. Even more, they are assaulting the foundation of our democracy.

For these reasons, we consistently tell officials: If you lost the vote, you have an obligation to accept the vote as the decision of your body. Your agreement to serve as a public official carries with it the duty to support the fundamental principle of our system of government. You may express your disagreement in public (see our article Criticizing a board decision in public). However, you should not take a single step to undermine the decision, because that would harm the organization which you have a duty to serve.

Is somebody trying to sabotage your council?

If you are dealing with such a situation, we recommend getting advice from your attorney about the law in your state. Review your bylaws and this quotation from Robert’s Rules of Order:

An organization or assembly has the ultimate right to make and enforce its own rules, and to require that its members refrain from conduct injurious to the organization or its purposes. Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th edition, 61:1

Once you are armed with the law and the rules, discuss the matter with the independent-minded member in private (if the sunshine laws in your state allow two members to have a private conversation). They may need help understanding the issue. Explain what is wrong with their attempt at sabotage, and show the importance of allowing the body’s action to stand. If that doesn’t work, it may be necessary to bring it up at a public meeting of your council or board. And if public shaming fails to have any effect, you may have to sanction the member (see our article, Sanctioning rogue board members).

Being elected limits actions you may take

American individualism is a great thing, but when you accept election to a local governmental body, you give up some of your First Amendment rights and some of your freedom of action. You agree to put the welfare of the organization above your own interest. You agree to compromise. You agree to follow the rules your body has adopted. And you agree that the entire body chooses its course of action, not any one self-interested individual. It ain’t easy! But it’s the American way.

Examples of attempts to sabotage

Here are instances I have encountered of attempted sabotage when someone lost the vote:

  • A planning commissioner publishes letters opposing the decisions of the commission and complaining about the members.
  • A city council takes a position on the status of the wetlands in response to a request from the state department of ecology. Three minority members send a letter to the department saying that they disagree with the city’s position.
  • The school board has approved a large bond issue. A member who disagrees publishes an Op-Ed in the local newspaper urging citizens to vote against the bond.

Have you had to deal with attempted sabotage? Let us know!

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Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised 12th edition was published in September 2020. Our previously published materials refer to the 11th edition. In substance the two editions are the same. There are minor differences, textual changes, and a change in reference method. The new edition gives references by section number, not by pages.

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Ann Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and nonprofit board directors and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments.


  1. Tom Thiersch on April 20, 2021 at 12:00 pm

    I have to disagree with this article. Every person has the same right as every other to express their individual viewpoint.

    It is not “sabotage” to express a minority opinion.

    Note, for example, judges (some are elected, some are appointed) who commonly write lengthy dissents, particularly at the state and federal Supreme Courts. In fact, dissenting arguments are of great value and are often cited in subsequent cases. See: https://www.law.cornell.edu/citation/2-200

    Elected officials swear or affirm to uphold the constitution and laws of the country/state/city, but they cannot legally be forced as a condition of office-holding to obey an arbitrary set of Rules.

    Even Robert was not always right in all matters.

    • Ann Macfarlane on April 20, 2021 at 12:09 pm

      Dear Tom, yes, every person has the right to express their individual viewpoint. Robert’s Rules, Jurassic Parliament, you and I are in agreement on this.

      However, there is a difference between expressing a minority view and actively trying to subvert or sabotage the council’s decision. It is the latter that we are concerned with in this article, since it violates the principle of majority rule.

      In our view, the rules are not arbitrary, but are an attempt to make it possible for organizations to function fairly and democratically. In general, it is up to the governing body to choose the rules by which it will be governed.

      Thank you for this thoughtful message. Sincerely, Ann Macfarlane

      • Tom Thiersch on May 5, 2021 at 12:19 pm

        When a Supreme Court Justice writes a dissenting opinion, you call that “sabotage” because it opposes to the position of the court’s majority.

        But in our system of justice, the court continues to function and future cases may well rest on those dissenting arguments.

        Every member of every governing body has a right to object to the decision of the majority, and to explain the basis for their opposition.

        In your “planning commissioner” example, you’ve mixed two different issues. Complaining about members of a governing body is totally protected First Amendment speech. Political speech is the “most protected” form of speech. Writing in opposition to a decision may well affect the how a policy created pursuant to the decision is carried out.

        In your “city council” example, a letter opposing the council’s decision that brings factual information to the attention of the department of ecology not otherwise considered is both appropriate and of value to that department’s decision-making.

        In your “school board” example, as long as the Op-Ed clearly states that the opinion is that of the individual and does not express a position of the board, there is no issue.

        “Sabotage” is simply to strong a word to describe those actions.

        • Ann Macfarlane on May 5, 2021 at 12:43 pm

          Tom, it is incorrect to state that our position characterizes a dissenting opinion as sabotage. This article does not refer to the courts.

          As previously stated in the comments, I completely agree with your sentence, “Every member of a governing body has a right to object to the decision of the majority, and to explain the basis for their opposition.”

          As for your other points, I think we must agree to disagree.

          Sincerely, Ann

  2. Deanna Horton on May 5, 2021 at 12:58 pm

    Every person has a right to their opinion. This is true, but when you decide join a board, commission, council, you join it to become a ‘member’ of that body to represent the whole. The board makes decisions which after much discussion, they democratically vote for what they believe will be the best solution for the members they represent. In doing so, the board/council should try and present a united front to support those decisions. These can be small or large decisions. But when the board/council/commission does not present a united front it causes confusion for the membership. Those members don’t know what is real and begin to question the leaders. When you have waring factions in a membership less and less is able to be accomplished to the goals of the organization which everyone joined in the beginning to accomplish because so much time is spent on the constant disagreements over unsupported decisions. As a former president of a quilt guild, I have had this conversation with my board members when we have had disagreements over matters which affect the membership, but not necessarily all board members agreed with. But with 150 people, you need to make sure that the 15 people who are making the decisions about budget, fees, and expenses are in the end in agreement to all decisions and agree to support one another in those decisions. Otherwise you lose control over the entire group and we get nothing done.

    • Ann Macfarlane on May 5, 2021 at 1:21 pm

      Thank you for this comment, Deanna.