Those who are allowed to speak hold the power

January 18, 2019

When I was knee-high to a grasshopper, growing up in a little rural community in northern Minnesota, I recall my father and uncle talking about how important it was that meetings were run with Robert’s Rules of Order, a guide conducting meetings and making group decisions.

 

Robert’s Rules is the most widely used parliamentary procedure in the United States. It’s based on two tenets: (1) The will of the majority will prevail, but only after (2) the rights of the minority are protected and given an opportunity for full and free discussion.

 

My uncle was an English teacher and the only person in the county who knew parliamentary procedure. He was always asked to help at church, political, and service organization meetings.

 

Of course I was too little to have a clue what they were talking about. It all seemed like a bunch of social alchemy that only old people could stomach.

 

As I got older and started doing adult things like protesting the Vietnam War and organizing food co-ops, the chaos of meetings make me think about my uncle and about the benefits of well-run meetings.

 

As I got more mature, I started noticing that the most effective of my union brethren would bring a copy of Robert’s Rules to meetings and read from it when they were making motions from the floor. The chair had a stone-faced parliamentarian sitting next to him who was consulted in whispers. Just like in Congress, there were recorders to transcribe every word. Everything ran smoothly and everyone got their say, though not always their way. It was becoming clear to me that Robert’s Rules of Order was an antidote to tyranny.

 

As I got even older, I lost some of my wisdom and ran for the Duluth School Board and won. Having been here a few years, it was obvious that well-run meetings did not exist in this town. Like in the movie North Country, might makes right in Duluth. At my first board meeting, I made the front page of the Duluth News Tribune for quoting Robert’s Rules of Order.

 

My mentor in running for the school board was Duluth educator, activist, and African-American icon Maureen Booth. After board meetings, Maureen would call me up and talk about the tyranny of majority and give me advice about Robert’s Rules. When she was younger, like in my youth, proper meeting procedure was an integral part of English education.  

 

If you look at the membership of the National Association of Parliamentarians, you will find an inordinate number of African Americans. Maureen told me it is because they have to use proper meeting procedure to level the playing field in fighting systemic racism.  

 

At my first private meeting with then-Superintendent Keith Dixon and then-School Board Chair Tim Grover, they told me I had to do whatever they told me to do. I asked them what any normal elected official would say in response to that: “Are you on crack?”  

 

They were flabbergasted that they couldn’t control me. I kept waiting for an offer of hush-money from Johnson Controls, who had their $380 million school contract, but I guess I wasn’t reverent enough to be trusted by corporate bureaucrats.

 

Like all dictators, immutable power isn’t enough; any discussion or free thinking by the minority must be stopped. For dictators, truth is like cancer—if you don’t stop it early, it will destroy everything.  

 

This was evident at every school board meeting. The board started asking police officers to attend meetings. On October 19, 2010, Loren Martell, a mild-mannered member of the public, tried to use his three minutes addressing the board to criticize Tim Grover for reneging on his election promise to oppose the Red Plan.

 

Grover hit the ceiling and angrily ordered the police officer to arrest Martell. Amazingly, she slavishly complied, handcuffing him and hauling him away.

 

At one meeting, Dixon added a discussion item by inviting Robert Vokes, the only parliamentarian in Duluth. Former Member Ann Wasson spoke for the board, expressing her grave objection to him being there and told him that he and his presentation weren’t welcome.

 

Back in 2010, the District’s attorney, Beth Storaasli, attended board meetings, for which she was paid over $500. What she did for that money, no one knew. She never said anything and no one ever asked her anything—until I started bringing up Robert’s Rules. Then she was asked her opinion on how to counter me.

 

At first, Storaasli had no clue. Then she started showing up with her own brand-spanking-new copy of Robert’s Rules. She would furiously thumb through it to find an answer, usually to no avail. Finally, someone in that infamous leadership black hole, made the decision that she was no longer needed at meetings.

 

The years went by and former Member Judy Seliga Punyko was elected chair. She maliciously interrupted me all the time. She once ordered the police to arrest me for trespassing at a board meeting, but the officers backed down when they found out I was an elected board member attending a scheduled meeting.  

 

The board thought it would be beneficial to call in the Minnesota School Board Association to conduct a workshop on getting along. Unfortunately, MSBA’s Sandy Gundlach and Katie Klanderud implied at the meeting that Robert’s Rules of Order doesn’t exist.

 

In vain, I tried for years to get a speaker from the Minnesota State Association of Parliamentarians to give a workshop at the MSBA annual convention. Instead, they had lawyers from one of their sponsoring law firms dumb-down and ridicule the Rules of Order and concentrate instead on how to handle unruly school board members and members of the public who might (heaven forbid!) want to address the board.

 

It is easy to pontificate on the nastiness of national politics, but if people paid a small fraction of attention to their own elected local boards, they would see that local politics is the microcosm and the genesis of everything wrong at the national level.

 

Ironically, local people could make a difference at the local level and, while that might not grab headlines on the coast, it would be a good way to start healing our communities and restoring our governments.

 

Art Johnston served on the Duluth School Board representing the Fourth District from 2010 to 2017.

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