Democracy is Messy

“Democracy is messy.”

This quote is attributed to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in response to the chaos and looting that erupted throughout Baghdad immediately after the American invasion.

So what’s this got to do with First Oakville Toastmasters?

Last night during the business session a motion was on the floor which would move a preciously favourable motion (the one about the trophy for the club-level evaluation contest) to committee (in this case the executive committee) for further investigation and consideration (in specific the naming of the trophy).

The mover of the motion to reconsider did an atrocious job of phrasing his motion and had not provided the secretary of a written copy. (A written copy of the motion would have helped this Toastmaster clarify his thinking.) He was also completely unprepared to speak to his motion and could only offer a weak opinion when asked by the chair whether his motion assumed the executive committee would have the authority to make final decisions when it came to the motion about the trophy. (In case there’s any doubt, the mover was me!)

The mover offered an opinion that under our democratic process the recommendations of the executive committee should come back to the club at a future date to be ratified by a vote of the assembly.

It might have been helpful if the chair had asked her parliamentarian for an opinion rather than asking the member who, while correct in his assumption, found his opinion under immediate attack by other members who were advocating. albeit wrongly, that the committee come to the final determination around the future of the trophy.

(In fact Robert’s Rules state under the information about “commit or refer”: “The subsidiary motion to Commit or Refer is generally used to send a pending question to a relatively small group of selected persons – a committee – so that the question mare be carefully investigated and put into better condition for the assemble to consider”).

(And for clarification: When committees like the executive committee are formed they are “charged” with certain tasks and powers. When they make decisions that fall within their mandate there is no necessity to take those decisions to the assembly. In other words, if the executive wishes to invite a guest speaker, which is happening next week, they are under no obligation to seek out approval. However, if the executive decides to buy something that was not previously agreed upon, such as a camcorder (which happened last year), the executive must come to the assembly for ratification of their decision by two-thirds vote in favour if there’s money involved or simple majority on other matters.)

At our meeting last night, following the offering of the opinion, some words of agreement and disagreement erupted from the floor and one member, who was recognized by the chair, rose and rather forcibly in my opinion and overly strongly extolled the club to just get on with business at hand and let the executive committee do what it wanted to do with the motion. In business debates the use of strong or passionate language is discouraged and language that might seem intimidating is out of order. And I must admit here as well that I am guilty of passionate and even bullying language in the midst of debate. This is a shortcoming I am actively working on so as not to alienate friends and provide foes with an easy target 🙂

So is all this bother about a trophy?

No. The great danger here is how this misinformation and fumbling of motions affects newcomers to the club. One newcomers at the break repeated the refrain of “why don’t we just get on with it!” And, several guests said they found the business session confusing.

One new member rightfully queried the chair when she, the member, wasn’t certain what was happening. The way to do this in a business session is to rise without being recognized by the chair and you may interrupt a speaker who has the floor by stating loudly: “Mr. Chairman, I rise to a parliamentary inquiry.” The chair is obligated to stop the discussion and to ask you to “state your inquiry.” Then it is appropriate to ask your question which will be answered or ruled out of order by the chair.

Overall, I can appreciate all the comments.

There are some business sessions that irritate the heck out of me. There are nights I too would just love to stand up and yell “just get on with it” or worse 🙂

However what we do in our short business sessions at First Oakville is practice how to work together as a group. It’s not an easy process and not all of us have learned how to play fair in the sandbox (and I’m pointing the finger at myself here) but our business sessions and Robert’s Rules of Order give us an invaluable gift of practice with people we like and respect.

This is not always the case in the worlds of business or government as evidenced by the ongoing debt crisis in Europe and the resulting continuous fractious debates and closed-door meetings.

Toastmasters International has recognized the need to develop real leadership abilities in its membership so much so that this year leadership now has equal importance to the objective of learning how to speak in public.

One issue for us is as our membership at First Oakville grows, it will become harder and harder to participate in calm, reasoned debate that includes us all.

Here’s a link to a very short overview of Parliamentary procedure. If anyone has any questions about our business meetings and how to use Robert’s Rules don’t hesitate to ask.

At First Oakville Toastmasters we want what’s best for all and regrettably democracy is messy.

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