You can’t shut down a meeting whenever you want
“Can City Council President Ben Stuckart really shut down a meeting whenever he wants?” runs the catchy headline. The answer, of course, is NO!
This week’s Inlander, a Washington weekly publication, reports that a citizen was using profane language during a meeting of the Spokane City Council. He refused to stop on the council president’s demand, so the president unilaterally ended the meeting. The president is quoted as saying, “I can cut any meeting. That’s why I have a gavel.”
This is simply wrong. Robert’s Rules of Order gives three ways to adjourn (shut down a meeting):
- A member may move to adjourn. This motion needs a second, cannot be debated, and takes a majority vote to pass. If a majority do not vote in favor, the meeting continues.
- If all the business of the meeting has been concluded, the chair may say, “There being no further business, this meeting is adjourned.”
- If a riot breaks out, the chair may adjourn a meeting.
If there’s a riot, shut down a meeting
Riot, in this example, means physical danger. It does not mean unpleasant words. In one of our Washington cities a couple of years ago, the public comment period became a little unruly. When a citizen compared four councilmembers to “the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” the chair ended the public comment period and the meeting. An ethics complaint was filed, and after investigation, the chair was censured for the action. (See our “Guidelines for Public Comment in Local Government” for more information on the issue of language in public comment.)
In another instance, a school board executive session became so unruly that the police were called. Afterwards, the board president issued a statement saying “only the chair can adjourn the meeting.” Wrong again!
Procedure sometimes seems removed from real life, but when a chair wants to shut down a meeting, knowing the limits of their authority is an important safeguard.
If the chair unjustly adjourns a meeting before the group’s business has concluded, what is the recommendation for the remainder of the group to continue the meeting? We ran into this some time ago when the mayor adjourned a meeting by banging the gavel and refusing to allow anyone to speak after a motion and second, but before the group could vote on the issue. It was a HUGE fiasco!
If the chair takes an improper action, a member should raise a Point of Order. The chair has the duty of issuing a ruling on the Point. In your example, a member might say “Point of Order, the mayor does not have the power to adjourn the meeting like that.” If the mayor then says, “The point is not well taken, I can adjourn the meeting any time I like,” a member can say, “I appeal the ruling of the chair.” If another member says “second,” then the mayor is supposed to take a vote on whether his ruling should be sustained, or not. Presumably in this case the majority would vote that the ruling is not sustained, which means that the meeting would continue.
If the mayor declines to recognize a Point of Order or Appeal that is properly made, a member can put it to the vote of the body himself or herself. The member should stand in place and say, “I have made a Point of Order that the mayor doesn’t have the power to adjourn this meeting. All those who believe that this Point of Order is correct, please say aye. All those who believe that it is not correct, please say no.” If a majority vote “aye,” then the meeting continues. Similarly the member can put an Appeal to the body as a whole.
Note that technically speaking, only a member of the body can raise a Point of Order or Appeal. However, Jurassic Parliament recommends that staff be authorized to make a Point of Order also. See our post, “Who may raise a point of order at council meetings?”
Sometimes it happens that the mayor or the body itself doesn’t know about how to follow this process. Education is necessary! Here are a couple of links:
How to use Point of Order and Appeal
Keep the chair in line using Appeal
I hope this helps, and good luck!