Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Columns

November 19, 2013

Education board meetings raise 'Robert's Rules' questions

Absence of order contributes to chaotic, state-level meetings.

Amid the chaos and fighting that has become Indiana’s Board of Education meetings of late, the question has popped up: Why not follow “Robert’s Rules of Order”?

The dry, technical guidebook used to govern the vast majority of public meetings across the nation at all levels of government is conspicuously absent at State Board of Education meetings. Instead, Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Democratic Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz agreed on a different set of rules for running meetings this past May.

Order and procedure are often taken for granted in typically staid public meetings, but the state board meetings have become calamitous events. When Pence and Ritz, who share control of the education board, agreed on the different set of rules, there was clear tension but nothing like the strife that erupted last week. Even before Ritz abruptly ended the meeting Wednesday and walked out, the warring parties had already been talking over each other, taking action on items without approval and fighting for control of each meeting.

At times, the board has felt more like Britain’s House of Commons than a subdued Midwestern panel — although the lack of witticisms and laughter is glaring.

“I think the entire point of these parliamentary procedures is to prevent entropy and chaos,” said Ashlyn Nelson, a professor of housing and education policy at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“Robert’s Rules” are the creation of Henry Martyn Robert, an Army officer who published his book on parliamentary procedure in 1876 based off the rules used by the U.S. House of Representatives. Since publication, the guidebook has become the most frequently used set of rules for public meetings in America.

In the absence of those rules, Nelson said, public meetings could drag on forever, committee members could talk over each other, actions could be proposed and dismissed arbitrarily. And those have become routine occurrences at the state education board meetings recently.

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