Now they’ve gone and done it! The Twinsburg Historical Society has invited me to give a talk on Wednesday, March 22. The title is “Organizations: American Democracy’s Secret Sauce.” (Unless I change it: I tend to fiddle with my presentations right up until showtime, which in this case is 7:00 p.m.)
The location is 8996 Darrow Road (route 91), Twinsburg, Ohio. You may recognize the building, which is shown above. The presentation is free and open to the public.
I hope to have some interesting things to offer. It’s Women’s History Month, and I’ve been asked to provide an update on our efforts in Bedford and the neighboring communities to establish a chapter of the League of Women Voters. (An LWV group is being organized in Twinsburg.) I think I’ll have some experiences to relate to others working on similar projects.
Since I’ve been active in a dizzying variety of organizations, I’ve been encouraged to connect our League chapter experience to other civic engagement activities. I have ambitious plans to extend the lessons of our League chapter to civic engagement in general.
I’ll review the history of associations in American civic life, and note the present state of civic engagement. I’ll fit in some observations about the value of learning the basics of parliamentary procedure.
For those of a more political bent, I’ll share some bipartisan information about the health of grass-roots political activity in Summit County.
As my drama students used to say: Don’t miss it if you can.
Having made heroic efforts to master new technology quickly under pandemic-induced duress, many organizations are weighing a return from electronic to in-person meetings. And many are asking their parliamentarians for help and guidance.
This article is aimed at those parliamentarians, not at the organizations themselves. So let’s first review – what do parliamentarians mean when we talk about meetings?
For the purposes of this article, meetings are what RONR1 terms deliberative assemblies. Organizational meetings, committee meetings, conventions, etc., are deliberative assemblies; classes, staff meetings, and social gatherings generally aren’t. (See RONR 12th ed. 1:1 for more.)2
During the pandemic emergency, electronic tools provided a lifeline: without them, those organizations would not have been able to meet at all.
Participants experienced frustration as they learned the technology, but something funny happened on the way to the home office: some organizations enjoyed increases in participation and attendance. Travel costs decreased, travel time was eliminated, and a, shall we say, less casual dress code prevailed. (Feel free to pause here for your own humorous recollection.)
Post-shutdown, many organizations are considering a return to in-person meetings. They should consider their options carefully. Generally, I hear organizations talking as if they have just three options. I think it’s more complicated than this, but generally the choices fall into these three categories:
They can continue to operate using virtual meetings.
They can switch back to in-person meetings.
They can attempt “hybrid” meetings, where people can attend in person or virtually as they see fit.3
Parliamentary organizations are faced with the same choices as our clients; but for us the consequences are different. We need to be ready to assist clients with all these options, and that requires practice. In the near century and a half since the publication of the first Robert’s Rules of Order, we have amassed much more experience helping clients manage in-person meetings than we have with electronic meetings.4 The pandemic shutdown gave parliamentarians a crash course in running electronic meetings, and some of us got good at them. What do we do now?
The meetings of our parliamentary organizations should, to the extent possible, model good procedure. If we expect to be acknowledged as the experts in this field, we need to be experts in all three of the options I’ve outlined. And we can’t do that if we plan all of our own meetings to be in the same procedural basket.
So what does that mean as we plan our organizations’ activities? It seems clear that we shouldn’t commit exclusively to any one solution.5 If we never hold electronic meetings ourselves, our ability to help clients will be limited; if we meet only electronically, we can expect to lose our “chops” to assist clients meeting in person. I suggest that we plan both, using various criteria to decide which is which.
Here are some examples for an organization I work with, barring another pandemic shutdown or other emergency.
E-meetings during the winter months will permit us to conduct our business and monthly trainings without concern for the notoriously fickle Northeastern Ohio travel conditions.
We hold a non-business annual workshop night in April (Parliamentary Law Month). We’ll gather in-person and livestream the presentations.
We can return to in-person business meetings in May, and we should be able to offer a “hybrid” arrangement that will permit virtual attendees to participate on an equal footing with in-person attendees. 6. The operative word here is “can.” Members may prefer to continue some e-meetings even in good weather; we’ll figure that out.]
Committee meetings generally work well as videoconferences, and some are small enough for telephone conference calls. (Sharing of documents needs to be provided for, though–working on a resolution or bylaw over the phone can be frustrating.)
We hold an annual dinner meeting in November. We’ve been holding it electronically. Breaking bread is powerful, but not so much in front of a screen! We’ll return to a physical meeting.
The point is that we don’t have to choose exclusively between in-person and electronic meetings. We can plan formats that match the content, season, and purpose of the meeting. And that way we can continue to enhance our skills using different meeting formats, and be ready to assist our clients and other organizations however they decide to meet.
In recent years, the writer has participated – as presider, parliamentarian, or participant – in hundreds of “virtual” meetings of a dozen or more entities, varying in size from a handful to several hundred participants.
“RONR” is shorthand for Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th ed., currently the world’s predominant parliamentary authority–commonly called “Robert’s Rules of Order.” ↩
It’s possible that some of these remarks will pertain to other kinds of meetings as well, but I make no such promises. ↩
Our expectations for hybrid meetings should be pretty high, and it’s not just a matter of pointing a webcam and allowing people to listen in. But that’s a topic for another post. ↩
Ironically, RONR is contemporaneous with the telephone. Only the past few editions have considered the possibilities of electronic meetings. Ironically, the current edition, with the most comprehensive coverage to date, was published a few months into the COVID-19 lockdown. ↩
This doesn’t apply to organizations that don’t hold physical meetings due to the geographic spread of their members. ↩
It took me three tries, but I finally voted last week. While my wife and I marked our vote-by-mail ballots at the kitchen table, something distracted me and I misvoted. I remembered seeing some instructions about what to do if you ruined your ballot, and decided to try that route. The result was instructive and unexpectedly positive.
The instructions provide a phone number to call if you mess up your ballot. A million and a quarter people live in our county, and I expected a bureaucratic nightmare. But eventually a lady named Georgia answered. She told me to bring my spoiled ballot to the Board of Elections. She gave me the hours I could do that and assured me that I would have no difficulty finding her.
When I got there two days later, I found Georgia right inside the door. “Oh, you’re Mr. Lavezzi,” she said. “See, I have your name right here.” (Holds up a note that she had taken when we talked.) “We’ll get you taken care of right away.”
What I hadn’t realized is that under these situations, you don’t get a new mail ballot: you get a new ballot to vote in person at the Board of Elections. And a lot of people vote there early in person–probably a couple of dozen or so while I was there, in a rather large room with several voting stations. A poll-worker took my spoiled ballot, brought me a new ballot, and showed me to a voting station where I filled out my ballot. I was back in my car in ten minutes.
It was a busy room, with a lot of people going in and out. In this particular encounter, I probably met a half dozen election workers, and every single one was as helpful as they could be.
Our democracy is strained and political tribes are at each other’s throats. A lot of people question the legitimacy of the election process; but that doesn’t match my experience. Whether as a candidate or a voter, every encounter has been positive and professional. “Stop the steal”? I don’t think so.
When you vote, thank the election workers. Just try not to let your attention wander as you fill out your ballot.