First thing first, what is the definition of Decorum itself:
Decorum – behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety, using etiquette grounded in a particular requirement of good taste and propriety by making rules in relation of suitability to the requirements of a person, rank, or occasion.
While, it is true that as a South Dakota citizen, we have laid out the ground rules by first adopting Article 6 – Section 5 of which reads as follows – Every person may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right. In all trials for libel, both civil and criminal, the truth, when published with good motives and for justifiable ends, shall be a sufficient defense. The jury shall have the right to determine the fact and the law under the direction of the court.
To elaborate even further, under SDCL 6-1-19 we the people of the state have legislatively adopted rules as to manage such public meetings or hearings of a township, county, municipality, or subdivision where the interests of the people shall be affected by an ordinance, or some other act of an elected or appointed governing board – Any public hearing or meeting conducted by an elected or appointed municipal, county, or township officer regarding any proposed ordinance, resolution, or regulation on any subject is legislative in nature and may be conducted informally to the extent the officer deems necessary to secure public comment on matters of public interest. The formal rules of procedure and evidence do not apply to the conduct of the public hearing or meeting. This provision does not abrogate any open meeting requirements in chapter 1-25
SDCL 6-1-20 – Any public hearing or meeting conducted by an elected or appointed municipal, county, or township officer regarding a quasi-judicial matter as defined in subdivision 1-32-1(10) may be conducted informally to secure the information required to make a decision. The formal rules of procedure and evidence do not apply to the conduct of the public hearing or meeting. If an officer relies upon any evidence not produced at a public hearing or meeting, the officer shall disclose the evidence publicly and include the information in the public record to afford all parties an opportunity to respond or participate. Failure to make this disclosure may be grounds for the municipal, county, or township officer’s disqualification for that particular decision, pursuant to the grounds for disqualification pursuant to SDCL 6-1-21 whereas, An elected or appointed municipal, county, or township officer may receive input from the public, directly or indirectly, about any matter of public interest. Such contact alone does not require the officer to recuse himself or herself from serving as a quasi-judicial officer in another capacity. An elected or appointed officer is presumed to be objective and capable of making decisions fairly on the basis of the officer’s circumstances and may rely on the officer’s own general experience and background. Only by a showing of clear and convincing evidence that the officer’s authority, statements, or actions regarding an issue or a party involved demonstrates prejudice or unacceptable risk of bias may an officer be deemed disqualified in a quasi-judicial proceeding.
SDCL 1-25-1 which statutory defines and governs how to conduct and manage a public hearing or meeting, sets in motion specific rules of which to guide such public meetings:
The official meetings of the state and its political subdivisions are open to the public unless a specific law is cited by the state or the political subdivision to close the official meeting to the public – It is not an official meeting of one public body if its members provide information or attend the official meeting of another public body for which the notice requirements of § 1-25-1.1 or 1-25-1.3 have been met. It is not an official meeting of a public body if its members attend a press conference called by a representative of the public body. For any event hosted by a nongovernmental entity to which a quorum of the public body is invited and public policy may be discussed, but the public body does not control the agenda, the political subdivision may post a public notice of a quorum, in lieu of an agenda. The notice of a quorum shall meet the posting requirements of § 1-25-1.1 or 1-25-1.3 and shall contain, at a minimum, the date, time, and location of the event. The public body shall reserve at every regularly scheduled official meeting a period for public comment, limited at the public body’s discretion, but not so limited as to provide for no public comment. At a minimum, public comment shall be allowed at regularly scheduled official meetings which are designated as regular meetings by statute, rule, or ordinance. Public comment is not required at official meetings held solely for the purpose of an inauguration, swearing in of newly elected officials, or presentation of an annual report to the governing body regardless of whether or not such activity takes place at the time and place usually reserved for a regularly scheduled meeting. If a quorum of township supervisors, road district trustees, or trustees for a municipality of the third class meet solely for purposes of implementing previously publicly-adopted policy, carrying out ministerial functions of that township, district, or municipality, or undertaking a factual investigation of conditions related to public safety, the meeting is not subject to the provisions of this chapter. A violation of this section is a Class 2 misdemeanor
While – State laws allow for the City which operates under a Homeroom Charter, this allows the residents of such city to manage their public meetings as they see fit, so long as they restrict their rules to adhere to all open meetings law, adhering to all public commenting laws, as well as that all public meetings are made public, are advertised as such in local newspapers, the media, etc, and al minutes are recorded in a journal. The City of Sioux Falls Charter, Section 2.11 – lays out how such public meetings shall be governed as – Meetings. The council shall meet regularly at least once in every month at such times and places as the council may prescribe by rule. If the council meets more than once a month, it may designate which meeting is the regular monthly meeting. If they don’t designate one, the first meeting of the month is the regular monthly meeting. Special meetings may be held on the call of the mayor or of six (6) or more members and, whenever practicable, upon no less than twelve hours notice to each member. All meetings shall be public, except as allowed by state law, of which if it is open to the public. The residents shall have the ability to meet and discuss publically, and to establish public commentary in support of, against, or to make their opinions known to the elected or appointed members of the governing bodies.
As per city ordinance Section 30.008 – The presiding officer of the city council meetings shall be the mayor. In the absence of the mayor, the acting mayor shall act as the presiding officer at the city council meetings. The acting mayor may vote on all issues. The mayor, or acting mayor, shall preserve strict order and decorum at all regular and special meetings of the city council and confine members in debates to the question under discussion. The mayor, or acting mayor, shall announce the vote on all subjects voted on by the city council, and shall govern the proceedings of the council in all cases, unless they are in conflict with this subchapter as per Section 30.012, which defines those rules as per the latest rules as established by Roberts Rules of Order; of which by city ordinance – the public has the right to talk before the city council three separate times.
Public input shall be allowed for any item on the regular agenda. Each person addressing the city council shall step up to the microphone in front of the rail, shall give his or her name in an audible tone of voice for the record, and unless further time is granted by the presiding officer, shall be limited to three minutes on any ordinance receiving a first reading; and on the date of final adoption by the city council, five minutes shall be allowed. The city council has the right to overrule the presiding officer’s use of discretion pursuant to Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised
So this brings us to Robert Rules of Order, what is it, how how does it define Decorum, and how does it govern public commentary during public meetings –
Everyone has the right to participate in discussion if they wish, before anyone may speak a second time;
Everyone has the right to know what is going on at all times. Only urgent matters may interrupt a speaker;
Only one thing (motion) can be discussed at a time.
A motion is the topic under discussion (e.g., “I move that we add a coffee break to this meeting”). After being recognized by the president of the board, any member can introduce a motion when no other motion is on the table. A motion requires a second to be considered. If there is no second, the matter is not considered. Each motion must be disposed of (passed, defeated, tabled, referred to committee, or postponed indefinitely).
Robert Rules to the Rescue – During the Second World War, the United States and its allies invested a fortune in research to understand why so many people in the Axis nations seemed willing to believe the unbelievable, do the undoable, and follow leaders who seemed unhinged. Victory depended on understanding the ideology and behavior of the enemy. When the Cold War followed, these studies continued for the same reasons, and ultimately led to the development of a new field: Political Psychology. Believe it or not, the things learned during those times of great global strife can be applied on even the most micro level—at a co-op or condo board meeting, for example.
Do you have a board member—maybe even a board chair—who is closed-minded, argumentative, and simply must have his or her way? It’s not an uncommon situation, and it makes the business of running a residential building community immeasurably more difficult. The truth is that while you are not going to have a lot of success changing a truly difficult person’s thinking, you can manage their behavior—especially if you understand better what motivates it.
Thanks to the research carried out over the last century, we now know that someone can have what we might label an “authoritarian” personality (AP) or a “democratic” personality (DP). Which camp the person falls into is determined primarily by the nature of their upbringing in terms of family, education, and peers. The AP and DP see things quite differently because they process information through entirely different mindsets. The AP may unwittingly destroy a democratic institution, believing that he or she is improving it. If you have an AP on your board, you are likely well aware that you face a challenge that should not be trivialized.
Part of the genius of the individuals who drafted our Constitution and constructed our democracy was that they understood this challenge as well—and long before the detailed research prompted by World War II. They understood that they needed to create a system whereby no one authoritarian person or small group would be able to dominate. They needed a process that would allow for the will of the many to prevail, yet not at the expense of the few. To this end, they constructed a systematic set of procedures so that rules—not people—dominated. The rules would become laws, and if one violated the laws, they violated the procedure, and thereby the democracy. While the people can change the laws (or procedures), they must follow procedure in order to change those laws legally. It is the system that rules.
Following Robert Rules of Order – So how does all of this figure into conducting board meetings? Put simply, it’s a matter of people management. The founding fathers’ approach makes little sense to an authoritarian personality, who is preoccupied with the dominance/submission, strong/weak, leader/follower dimensions of society. APs identify with power figures and derive security from knowing their place relative to those figures. So first and foremost, an AP needs to understand the chain of command in any group dynamic and where he or she fits into it.
One excellent tool for giving structure to meetings and other board business (which is helpful to everyone, regardless of personality type) is Robert’s Rules of Order. Robert’s Rules were developed by U.S. Army Brigadier General Henry Martyn Robert in the 1870s when he was asked to preside over a church meeting. Though he felt unequal to the task, Robert nevertheless rose to the occasion—but determined to never again attend a meeting without having some understanding of parliamentary law.
As he was transferred around the country, Robert discovered that disorganization in meetings was epidemic, as people from different regions and walks of life had their own very different ideas as to what constituted the correct way to run a meeting. There were a few books available on the subject then, but Robert studied them, eventually streamlining everything he learned into Robert’s Rules of Order, the first edition of which was published in 1876.
Essentially, Robert’s Rules is an instructional manual delineating guidelines for orderly group decision-making. And, while co-op boards and HOAs are encouraged to be relaxed in the conduct of business, it is crucial that certain fundamentals be both understood and followed. If they are not, it is the responsibility of the board chair to remedy the problem. This means, of course, that if the chair has authoritative tendencies, your democracy may be in trouble.
One of Robert’s most important rules has to do with “Decorum during Debate.” The rule stresses that in a debate, a member must confine their remarks to the question, be courteous in their language and deportment, avoid all personalities, not arraign the motives of another member, and emphasize that it is not the individual, but the measure that is subject of debate. It is the duty of the chair to enforce these behavioral guidelines. If he or she fails to do this, then a speaker who has the floor is open to interruptions and attacks by authoritarian personalities.
Indeed, the power that the chair wields with the gavel is to maintain democratic order. It is the chair’s responsibility to be impartial in order to facilitate the presentations of reports and the differing sides of debate in a depersonalized atmosphere that is free from intimidation by either a board member or the chair himself. The chair can do this because he presides over the debate process but doesn’t participate or vote, unless there is a tie.
In recent years, the road map provided by Robert’s Rules for more than a century has become somewhat muddied. There are now books available on the conduction of meetings that are inspired by or which reference Robert’s Rules, but these may not be the best fit for co-op and condo board business.
This is particularly the case when it comes to small organizations. For example, there are publications suggesting that since many HOAs have few members and small boards, it is acceptable for a chair to not only preside over meetings with all the power to recognize speakers, monitor behavior, and make rulings during debate, but also to be allowed to participate in debates and vote. While at first glance this may seem more modern or more efficient, such a policy sets up a slippery slope, especially where one or more AP board members are involved; rather than enhancing discussion and debate; it can give authoritarian board members enough leeway to run roughshod over their less aggressive counterparts, and can empower a chair to be a dictator via intimidation.
While Robert’s Rules mandates strict adherence to rules regarding debate and the role of the chair for boards of 12 or more, it does allow some occasional wiggle room for small boards of fewer than 12 members, should all members agree to the relaxation of strict parliamentary procedure. But with that however comes a fail-safe mechanism, should things get out of hand. Any time the relaxed process interferes with business in the judgment of any member (such as discomfort felt as a result of intimidation by the chair), a motion can be made to restore strict adherence to Robert’s Rules. The person making the motion has no need to justify or explain, and the chair, following the motion, can vote but not discuss. Members can debate the motion, but it would be meaningless because the idea is to restore the proper rules of debate.
Clearly, the nature of the personalities on a board, particularly that of the chair, are important to the nature of that board’s process. Authority consists of both power and responsibility. Robert’s Rules of Order can be a useful parliamentary tool to keep things on track and not let the board’s directors go astray. https://cooperatornews.com/article/roberts-rules-to-the-rescue/full
So, as we have the utmost sovereign right to govern over our “public meetings” – we also have the right to set rules of engagement, moral codes of behavior, as well as structure our meetings as we wish. That goes with establishing some ground rules as such, to govern how we allow for public commentary within those public meetings, while the ‘president of the board’ has the authority to manage those public speakers in order to maintain decorum, structure, timely order, as well as respective dialogue, in order to conduct as much as reasonably can be expected – a clean professional meeting in the name of the “collective people” of whom you wish to govern.
As a City – we have codified by ordinance, that we shall allow the “residents” of the community to speak up during both First Readings (3 minutes), Second and Final Readings (5 minutes), as well as during General Public Commentary before or at the end of all the agenda regulate agenda items for 3 minutes, so long as the public speaks independently from any of the ‘agenda items’.
Simply said, the “public” actually runs the public meetings through their “direct representation” of elected members of their City Council. Through that delegation of elected members do we lay out and set the rules as to manage our public meetings, of which we have chosen to place the “mayor” who acts as our predominant at-large representative to act as the ‘head officer” of such public meetings to control the meeting itself, by the rules ‘we’ have established. Since, by City Charter – we created the rule that we shall elect a ‘new council’ every two years by public elections, the PEOPLE have the ability to ‘change their minds’ frequently as often as they wish to. This means, every two years as we elect those new city councils, we can at our convenience adopt new rules of engagement to manage “our” public meetings, and if we so choose, change the rules concerning public commentary.
This is why I disagreed with placing “public comment” rules in our Charter, I actually agreed with several members of the Charter Revision Committee – we should not confine ourselves to such restrictive rules by our charter, cause who you are really confining, is the right of the people from their sovereign ability to ‘change their minds’ and as frequently as they wish to. Do you really want to restrict yourself to such rules, or do you wish for the people to govern themselves based on the ever changing political climate of a specific period of time? In conclusion, I have have come to the assessment, that “WE THE PEOPLE” shall always have the right to govern our public meetings in any manner we so decide as one collective group, and until ‘we’ discuss the thought of wishing to change those rules, ‘we’ shall always act in a respectful, civil, moral, and understanding people as we wish to discuss agenda items, or create public commentary on issues we feel are important to us. But I myself agree – we shall do so in a respective manner, which allows us as a collective group to manage that so-called “Decorum”, and we have placed that responsibility in the hands of the Mayor.
Decorum – the ability of the people to self govern themselves as they act publically within the capacity of a public forum. So in the defense of the 1st Amendment itself, it does allow for the “people” to create their own rules as such, where we are to allow for public comments in that capacity. We are speaking of a “public meeting”, and not your free right to yell, scream, or demonize people outside along a public sidewalk, porch, or some other venue open to the public where there may be no rules. You have to understand, inside the Public Town Hall Forum, “We The People ” have laid down rules of engagement to govern a public event. And while you are participating in such a public event, you shall be confined by the same rules which govern everyone who is attending that public event. You are to act in a respective manner, avoiding vulgar language as much as possible, while to the best of your most reasonable ability, control your behavior.
Outside of that public meeting, you are free to act in whatever way you wish, and thanks to the First Amendment, there is nothing any of us can do about it. “WE” only lay the rules inside that public forum.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Every person may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right. In all trials for libel, both civil and criminal, the truth, when published with good motives and for justifiable ends, shall be a sufficient defense. The jury shall have the right to determine the fact and the law under the direction of the court (South Dakota Art6, S5).