Electronic Meetings under RONR 11th edition


By Weldon Merritt, PRP, CP

The 11th edition of RONR goes into much more detail about electronic meetings than does the 10th edition, including an entirely new section on Electronic Meetings at pp. 97-99. The new material includes a discussion of the types of e-meetings (p. 98, ll. 1-19), a brief discussion of e-meetings in committees (p. 98, ll. 21-28), and a more extensive discussion of the addition rules that will be needed by an organization that wishes to conduct business by e-meeting (p. 98, l. 30 to p. 99, l. 30).

Despite the expanded coverage, the new edition continues to prohibit the conduct of business by e-meeting unless authorized in the bylaws. (P. 97, ll. 9-14.) The edition does, however, recognize “an increasing preference [for e-meeting], especially in the case of a relatively small board or other assembly.” (P. 97, ll. 15-17.) The text goes on to note:

A group that holds such alternative meetings does not lose it character as a deliberative assembly (see pp. 1-2) so long as the meetings provide, at a minimum, conditions of opportunity for simultaneous aural communication among all participating members equivalent to those of meetings held in one room or area. Under such conditions, an electronic meeting that is properly authorized in the bylaws is treated as though it were a meeting at which all the members who are participating are actually present. [P. 97, ll. 22-30.]

The reference to pp. 1-2 is to the list of the six characteristics of a deliberative assembly appearing on those two pages. I will not list all of those characteristics her, but will only note that eNAP’s meetings include every one of those characteristics except for the second one:

The group meets in a single room or area or under equivalent conditions of opportunity for simultaneous aural communication among all participants. [P. 1, ll. 12-14.]

The word “aural” is the spoiler in that description. Most of us probably would agree that communications in our chat room are pretty much simultaneous (allowing for a slight delay between a members’ typing and the posting of the typed text), but they certainly are not “aural.” But just in case there might be any doubt, the discussion of types of deliberative assemblies includes the caveat:

                It is important to understand that, regardless of the technology used, the opportunity for simultaneous aural communication is essential to the deliberative character of the meeting. Therefore, a group that attempts to conduct the deliberative process in writing (such as by postal mail, e-mail, “chat rooms,” or fax)—which is not recommended—does not constitute a deliberative assembly. Any such effort may achieve a consultative character, but it is foreign to the deliberative process as understood under parliamentary law. [P. 98, ll. 11-19.]

Interestingly, the footnote to the second characteristic of a deliberative assembly mentions postal mail, e-mail, and fax, but omits any mention of chat rooms. (P. 1, fn.) This appears to have simply been an oversight when a similar footnote at p. 2 of the 10th edition was incorporated into the new edition.

So where does that leave eNAP? Clearly, so far as RONR is concerned, eNAP is not, and cannot be, a deliberative assembly, regardless of how we may view ourselves. In an attempt to explore the issue, this member initiated a discussion thread on the RONR Q&A Forum starting with the question of whether  a group of deaf members could ever be a “deliberative assembly,” given that they could never achieve “simultaneous aural communication. “ Those interested in that discussion may view it at http://simultaneous-aural-communication.notlong.com.

Among those responding to the thread were RONR authors Burke Balch and Dan Honemann. In his initial response, Mr. Balch seemed to hint that the “aural” aspect is not really an essential element (at least when considering a meeting of deaf members), saying: “I wouldn't worry too much about the ‘aural’ limitation as the much more practical limits would be other aspects of the standard rules, and all -- the ‘aural’ limitation and the practical difficulties from applying the standard rules -- would be superseded by appropriate special rules of order.” Later (while the thread still was focused on a meeting of deaf members in a single room), Mr. Honemann responded, “Any group which ‘meets in a single room or area’ is a group which possesses the characteristic of a group which ‘meets in a single room or area’, so what's the problem?” This response seems to indicate (as Mr. Balch stated more clearly a few responses later) that the “simultaneous aural communication” component is important only for meetings that do not occur “in a single room or area.” Yet if that were so, then it seems the phrase “equivalent conditions” is meaningless.

Still later in discussing the reasons for the rule based on problems inherent in “asynchronous meetings” (which he considered to include chat room meetings) Mr. Balch stated:

For example, when is debate to end and a vote be taken? How are amendments and other secondary motions to be handled? A new forest of rules would be required to cope with such problems. And we really need not undertake such an enterprise, because -- for those who insist on electronic meetings -- the technology and software required to enable "simultaneous" communication in ways that allow efficient seeking and granting of recognition, submission of written motions, voting by means less cumbersome than roll call, permitting viewing of other meeting participants (or at least the chair and the speaker) by webcam, and the like, are rapidly developing and, as they become more common, are becoming less and less expensive. So we need not sacrifice most of the well-established and proven rules of parliamentary procedure in order to conduct electronic meetings.

Obviously, the authors did not recognize that there is a significant difference between chat room meetings and e-mail deliberations, and that chat room meetings actually are “synchronous,” not “asynchronous.”

So what difference, if any, does it make whether or not eNAP, or any similar group, is a “deliberative assembly”? For all intents and purposes, probably none. As Mr. Balch stated toward the end of the thread:

Perhaps it may best be understood as encouraging groups that intend to employ electronic meetings to structure them in ways that comport with the definition of deliberative assembly, in preference to ways that do not – although, through appropriate provisions in bylaws and special rules of order, they are of course free to structure electronic meetings–or, for that matter, any sort of meetings-- however they choose to do so, whether the consequent assembly fits within the RONR definition of deliberative assembly or not.

And to quote NAP Secretary, Josh Martin in closing the thread:

Based on the discussion, I'm getting the idea that the characteristics of deliberative assemblies are primarily a set of assumptions inherent in the rules of RONR. If a group does not meet all of the characteristics of a deliberative assembly, this serves as a warning that many of the rules in the book will not apply to such a group, and that if the group wishes to use RONR, it will also need to adopt customized rules to fit its own unique circumstances.

That, of course, is precisely what we in eNAP have done.