In-Person: If, When, How?

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:

  1. They can continue to operate using virtual meetings.
  2. They can switch back to in-person meetings.
  3. 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.

–Bill

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.

Notes:

  1. “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.”
  2. It’s possible that some of these remarks will pertain to other kinds of meetings as well, but I make no such promises.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. This doesn’t apply to organizations that don’t hold physical meetings due to the geographic spread of their members.

Heroes at the Board of Elections

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.

For STRS Board, Support Rita Walters for Retired Seat

If you are an Ohio teacher, or if you care about someone who is, this post may be of interest. If not, feel free to move on to cat videos or what passes for political discourse these days.

Members of STRS–the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio–are currently electing three members of the STRS Board: two active seats and one retired seat. The election has attracted candidates, and those candidates have attracted a lot of attention.

A number of friends and acquaintances have honored me by asking for my view of these elections. I cast my ballot for Rita Walters today.

For Ohio educators–particularly career educators–STRS plays the role that Social Security plays for others. When Social Security was set up in 1935, public employees in many states were excluded from the program. Nationally, 6.6 million public employees nationally derive their retirement benefits from plans like STRS.

For decades, these plans chugged along pretty well. However, as Baby Boomers aged, the number of benefit recipients ballooned, largely due to increases in life expectancy. In 2012, the Ohio General Assembly ordered changes to Ohio’s public pension plans that resulted in changes that have affected both active and retired public employees. 1

The financial picture has improved: some of those 2012 austerity measures are being eased, and the fiscal position of STRS is better than it has been in a very long time.

That hasn’t prevented the injection of a fair amount of demagoguery into the STRS elections. Rival candidates have been attacking incumbents, implying that they have solutions that elude the incumbents. The fact is that there are no magic bullets. STRS Board members have fiduciary responsibilities, and a Board member elected with a predetermined agenda has already breached those responsibilities.

The platform statement of Rita’s challenger makes it clear that she has such an agenda, and it demonstrates a dangerous misunderstanding of the role of STRS Board members. The challenger appears to promise what she can’t deliver, and she confuses the role of legislators with that of the Board.

Rita Walters has the training and experience needed to continue to make sound decisions for Ohio’s retired teachers; she’s been doing that. The fund is doing better than it has for years, the COLA has started back, and for actives, the age 60 requirement for retirement has been eliminated.

My advice to my friends and colleagues is to vote to re-elect the incumbents. For retirees, that’s Rita Walters. For actives, those are Jeff Rhodes and Rob McFee.

Votes are due Monday, May 2.

Notes:

  1. As a young teacher, I assumed that my retirement, like Social Security, was supported by the full faith and credit of my fellow citizens. Turns out that wasn’t true: the 2012 legislation sent the message that teachers would have to figure out, and pay for, the solution.