Clashes between the mayor and city council sometimes have a devastating impact on a city’s well-being. A few simple principles can keep the lines of authority clear.

This is a guest post by Ann G. Macfarlane.

After fifteen years in this business, it seems to me that questions of authority are some of the hardest to resolve. I often find city councils and other governing bodies struggling with the question, “Who’s in charge here, anyway?” If a group understands certain fundamental principles, it becomes much easier to resolve those tensions and move forward effectively.

A terrible example

During a recent consultation, this sentence from a set of “council rules and procedures” made my hair stand on end:

“All persons present at a meeting must obey the mayor’s orders.”

This rule is profoundly wrong. It may look legitimate, but it isn’t. The mayor, when running a meeting of the city council, is the presiding officer – not a dictator. The presiding officer runs the meeting as the servant of the members. The correct rule is similar to the one cited above, but has a subtle and essential difference:

“All persons present at a meeting must obey the legitimate orders of the presiding officer.”

Right of appeal

The legitimate orders of the presiding officer are those issued in accordance with the rules and procedures adopted by the group, to serve the group. And, according to Robert’s Rules of Order and common parliamentary law, those orders are subject to appeal by any two members of the group. For example, if the presiding officer declares that someone is speaking off topic and must stop forthwith, the member can say “I appeal.” If another member says “second,” then the group itself will vote to decide whether the member may continue.

The mayor is not the boss

Why don’t people know this? Why do councilmembers, county commissioners, directors of special districts, and nonprofit board members allow the mayor, the chair or the president to exercise unquestioned authority over the group, acting as if he or she were the final authority?

We have lost the common understanding of meeting procedure that grew up in this country when America was alive with associations, astonishing the Frenchman de Tocqueville and English authors who toured the continent. We are used to the image of the “captain of industry,” the hard-charging boss who carries everyone in her wake. We want to be nice and “get along,” and it may seem safer to keep our heads down.

The group is the final authority

But remember, elected officials, citizens appointed to commissions and committees, and volunteers: you have rights too! Yes, we have to obey the mayor when the mayor is enforcing the rules we chose – but those rules ultimately make the group the final authority.

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Originally posted at Cities Speak.

Ann G. Macfarlane is a professional parliamentarian who offers fresh insights into Robert’s Rules of Order at Follow Ann on Twitter@AnnGMacfarlane.