Planning commissions and zoning board of appeals are required to have governing bylaws

There is a minimum content for bylaws, but normally there is much more, including specifying which parliamentary authority is used.

Michigan law requires both the planning commission and the zoning board of appeals to formally adopt a written set of bylaws. Where planning commissions refer to them as “bylaws,” the zoning board of appeals will refer to them as “rules of procedure.” For the purposes of this article, they will be referred to as “bylaws.”

At a minimum, planning commission bylaws have to include sections on:

  1. Conflict of interest
  2. Election of officers
  3. Meeting minutes
  4. Transaction of business
  5. The process to call a special meeting 

Bylaws should also cover many other topics that assist an organization in managing itself. For an example of planning commission bylaws see ”Land Use Series: Sample #1E: Bylaws for a Planning Commission.”

For an example of zoning board of appeals rules of procedure see “Land Use Series: Sample #7: Zoning Board of Appeals Rules of Procedure.”

These and other examples can also be found on the Michigan State University Extension website.

In addition to the required sections of the bylaws, above, it is advisable for planning commissions and appeals boards to also include a section on parliamentary authority. This section would describe what meeting rules will be used by the board to govern meetings that haven’t already been defined by other higher order rules – those prescribed by federal, state, local ordinances, and the bylaws. Another way to describe parliamentary authority is meeting “rules of order.”

One of the most common parliamentary authorities used by boards is “Robert’s Rules of Order,” originally published in 1876 by General Henry Robert. There are 11 editions of “Robert’s Rules” with the most recent being from September 2011 with its new title, “Roberts Rules of Order Newly Revised” (RONR). 

The eleventh edition of RONR has changes from earlier versions which make it much better for small boards; better step-by-step procedures for disruptive members, removal of officers; electronic meetings; and about 122 other changes.

In addition to RONR, there are other rules of order a board can consider for adoption, such as simplified versions of Robert’s written by various publishers: “Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure” by Alice Sturgis, and “Democratic Rules of Order: Complete, Easy-To-Use Parliamentary Guide for Governing Meetings of Any Size” by Fred Francis and Peg Francis. 

There are other parliamentary authorities, but none are appropriate for use by local government in Michigan because they were designed for bicameral legislative bodies. “Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure” and “ Jefferson’s Manual” (Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States) are two examples.

All of these rules of order are based on the same underlying principles of parliamentary law which include:

  • The protection of the rights of members of the assembly – the majority, minority, those not present and the balance of them all.
  • The full deliberation of all issues, one subject at a time, and one person at a time; each member is equal with one vote. 

When naming which parliamentary authority will be used, it is critical to specify in the bylaws the complete citation for the rules of order and the date or addition it’s being adopted. For example one way to site the most recent edition of RONR is to write “Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th edition; by Henry M. III Robert, Daniel H. Honemann, Thomas J. Balch, Daniel Seabold, Shmuel Gerber;  Da Capo Press; September, 2011.” One’s bylaws might read, for example:  

“The rules contained in the 11th edition (September, 2011) of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised shall govern the _____ in all cases to which they are applicable and in which they are not inconsistent with these bylaws and any special rules of order the _____ may adopt”

Another example would be, “The rules contained in the current edition of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised shall govern . . . .”

Before a member reaches for their board’s adopted parliamentary authority to answer a question regarding rules of operation, it is important to understand the hierarchy of rules that are in effect to govern the board. Being aware of the rules that “rank” higher than the adopted parliamentary authority is important to understand, especially when two different documents say different things. Board members must know which take precedence.

A very simplified listing of the hierarchy of rules follows. The ruler higher on the list take precedence over those lower on the list.

  1. Treaties with other nations
  2. U.S. Constitution, Tribal Constitution, and court decisions
  3. Federal treaties with quasi-dependent sovereign nations (such as Indian tribes)
  4. Federal laws
  5. Federal administrative rules
  6. Michigan Constitution and  court rulings
  7. State laws - for purposes of planning and zoning the Michigan Planning Enabling Act, Michigan Zoning Enabling Act, Municipal Joint Planning Act, various regional planning acts, the Open Meeting Act, Freedom of Information Act, etc.
  8. State administrative rules
  9. County, city, or village charter
  10. Local zoning ordinance
  11. Other local ordinances – including the ordinance creating the local planning commission or joint planning commission
  12. Planning commission bylaws and zoning board of appeals rules of procedure
  13. Parliamentary authority
  14. Local policy, resolutions, office manuals, etc.

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