Respectfully, bylaws don't need this change

By Marjorie Isaacson

A proposed bylaw for the East Village Association would require that all members conduct themselves in a respectful, considerate manner in meetings, and gives the presiding officer the right to expel those persons who are judged to be disrespectful.

I am opposed to this proposed bylaw for several reasons, and suggest that members think about these issues before voting.

One reason I have heard for adding this amendment was that civility in meetings is so essential, the organization wanted to reiterate the commitment with a special mention in the bylaws. We should be respectful in our deportment, but the amendment will not accomplish this.

Just because something is in the bylaws doesn’t guarantee it is carried out successfully. In my years of EVA membership, I have seen the bylaws misused on many occasions, both by people who claim the bylaws say something they don’t and by those ignoring policies that are in the bylaws. I have no desire to be a scold, and I think if we conform to the spirit of the bylaws many mistakes can be forgiven. But I do object to making them needlessly more complicated.

The addition is unnecessary. Like organizations ranging from student councils to Congress, EVA has in its bylaws the requirement to carry out meetings using Robert’s Rules of Order. Robert’s was designed to allow "everyone to be heard and to make decisions without confusion." It also has very specific guidelines about unruly behavior.

Robert’s Rules also have become a standard of behavior because they are really good. They’re well reasoned, comprehensive and hard to improve. When one starts writing another version of how to conduct meetings, one can see how easy it is to get things wrong.

For example, the proposed bylaw refers to "members" only. My guess is that the intent is to guard against disrespectful behavior by anyone attending a meeting, not just members — or at least I’d like to think everyone in a conversation should be held to the same standard. But if the bylaw was adopted as is, it wouldn’t apply to that odd troublemaker who shows up just to disrupt. If we used the tools Robert's gives us, this would enable us to handle such situations.

Finally, this proposed amendment could be used for scapegoating or to otherwise stifle legitimate differences of opinion. Again I’ve seen a lot of contention at meetings. It’s part of the process. Even the most reasonable people can have real differences of opinion, and the stakes are high: We’re talking about where and how we live.

I’ve also seen people present their opinions in ways that are unfair, petty and hurtful, and I can honestly say that more times than I care to remember I’ve left meeting to go home and cry at things that have been said to me.

But I’ve also seen people state hard, unpopular truths in a less than diplomatic fashion. It's easy to blame the messenger instead of trying to understand what is being said, and why. Exploring these issues is one of the reasons we meet as a community.

I think the danger of marginalizing unpopular opinions is very real with this proposed amendment. Variations on this statement have been attributed to both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin: "Any society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will lose both, and deserve neither."

An alternative discussed at the most recent board meeting would be much preferable to my mind. We discussed formalizing a statement that might be used at the opening of every meeting that would serve to set expectations as well as welcome participation. I believe this process, conducted in a sincere and thoughtful manner, would benefit everyone.

All of us, not just the person running the meeting, need to take responsibility for making sure our meetings are all that we want them to be. An amendment that focuses on punitive reactions won’t accomplish that.

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