Whose meeting is it anyway?

Basic to the concept any formal meeting of a society or trust (and of other formal bodies such as local authorities and school boards of trustees) is that democratic processes should and will be followed.  That statement it has a number of implications:

  • Domination of the meeting by an authoritarian chairperson or of a aggressive participant(s) is inappropriate,
  • The meeting must ultimately be in the hands of those participating – were it otherwise, democratic processes could not function, and
  • Without rules of procedure, meetings would be chaotic.

Role of a chairperson

A meeting without a chairperson is like a sports team without a captain or musical ensemble without a conductor. The chairperson should be a leader who knows the rules of meeting procedure and uses them as the servant of the meeting. It is not always an easy role to fulfill, but a good chairperson can preside over effective and efficient meetings which can be (dare I suggest it) enjoyable.

In passing, I note that the word “chairperson” has become accepted in the last 20 years and is found in the Companies Act 1993 and the Local Government Act 2002. Its invention was due to the misconception that “chairman” was a sexist word, whereas the last syllable is derived from the Latin “manus,” meaning hand. If the last syllable of “chairman” is objectionable, so too would be “chairperson” be sexist – think about that.

Role of participants

Having a good chairperson is a major factor in having a successful meeting, but the participants, too, need to contribute to that success.

Whenever I hear people criticise the way a meeting was run, the first question that occurs to me is “What did the critic do about it at the time?” Especially in large or public meetings participants may find it difficult to try to improve the way a meeting is being run. In contrast, in smaller meetings (such as those of the committees of most community organisations) everyone can help make a meeting run more smoothly and efficiently.

As a minimum, all meeting participants should be capable of:

  • Preparing in advance for every meeting by reading the agenda material thoroughly,
  • Participating intelligently and diligently throughout the meeting, and
  • After the meeting, promptly carrying out any tasks assigned to them at the meeting.

In addition, all meeting participants should seek to:

  • Improve their knowledge of the basics of proper meeting procedure,
  • Help the meeting flow, by moving and seconding motions,
  • Ensure that motions are clearly stated and unambiguous, and that votes are taken on every motion,
  • Ensure that minutes are accurate and are properly adopted as a true and accurate record,
  • Help the chairperson when that person is uncertain, has a lapse of memory, or has to deal with difficult people, and
  • Assist others in the meeting to follow the process and participate.

The role of debate in a meeting

There are two primary ways of progressing issues in a meeting:

  • Frequently before a motion is put there is a free-ranging discussion on a topic, following which a motion is moved and then formally debated. That process can be useful as it allows issues to be fully explored before any formality is required, but the chairperson needs to keep such discussion focussed and must ensure that time is not wasted unnecessarily.
  • The alternative is not to allow discussion without a motion being moved and seconded – which is the more formal option.

If the strict rules of parliamentary procedure are followed, once a motion is moved debate on it follows a formula where everyone is restricted to speaking only once (except the mover of the motion who has a right of reply). There are few meetings where that rule is rigorously applied, and most chairpeople will allow folk to speak more than once. However, without careful control by the chairperson some people will dominate debate on a motion and much time is likely to be wasted. Striking a happy medium is not easy, but an experienced chairperson who can threaten to use the strict rules (and who knows how to use them) should be able to control and enable a balanced, fair debate.

The dilemma for a chairperson

The principles of parliamentary procedure are based on the assumption that those participating may hold sometimes hostile, opposing points of view, with some “for” and some “against” proposals. The very use of parliamentary formality can itself foster arguments and cause hostile debate, but, equally, the failure to follow proper meeting procedures may cause equally virulent reactions (and, potentially, result in decisions made being held to be invalid).

Being a chairperson is not always easy, but if the chairperson knows the rules of parliamentary procedure and has varied experience chairing meetings the task can be less daunting.

Whether a chairperson is a novice or vastly experienced, the meeting belongs to those participating. If participants are to “own” a meeting it is in their interests to make effective contributions as they are ultimately responsible for to ensuring that the meeting is well-run.

This is one of a series of articles on societies and charitable trusts (originally published in the NZ Lawyer magazine) by Mark von Dadelszen, a Hastings lawyer and author of Law of Societies, 3rd Edition, 2013. If any reader has examples of issues that have arisen or questions about societies or charitable trusts that might be a suitable subject for one of these articles please contact Mark at mark.vondadelszen@bvond.co.nz.