A Parliamentary Procedure Primer: Part 2 – Motions

Published for Coates' Canons on December 20, 2022.

My last post introduced parliamentary procedure and local rules of procedure generally. This week, we’ll explore the procedural rules surrounding motions. A motion is a formal proposal by a board member that invites the body to take some action. (RONR (10th ed.), p. 5, ll. 5-6). In other words, motions are the way that items of business are placed before the board for its consideration. Local rules of procedure govern many aspects of motion practice including the order in which motions are decided, seconds, and debate.

Order of Motions

There are two general categories of motions in parliamentary procedure: substantive motions and procedural motions. Substantive motions (also called main motions) bring business before the body. (RONR (10th ed.), p. 59, l. 23-26). Only one substantive motion may be pending at a time. (RONR (10th ed.), p. 59, l. 25). Examples of substantive motions include a motion to adopt an ordinance or a motion to enact a policy. These motions bring a product (something of substance, hence the name!) before the board for consideration and possible action. In other words, if passed, substantive motions typically create some sort of output that binds or otherwise impacts the public.

In contrast, procedural, or subsidiary motions, assist in disposing of substantive motions. (RONR (10th ed.), p. 60, l. 3-4). Unlike with substantive motions, there can be many procedural motions pending at a time. (RONR (10th ed.) p. 62, ll. 1-25). When trying to assess whether a motion is substantive or procedural, keep in mind that procedural motions always do something to another motion. (RONR (10th ed.) p. 62, ll. 1-5). That is to say that procedural motions cannot stand alone. Consider a motion to amend. A motion to amend depends on there being something else to amend. A motion to amend therefore requires that there be a separate pending item. Similarly, with motions to refer to committee, there must be something to refer to the committee. A motion to refer to committee depends on the existence of a separate item to have purpose and meaning.

Why does this distinction matter? Whether a particular motion is substantive or procedural dictates when the board will decide on that motion. Both Robert’s Rules of Order (“Robert’s”) and the School of Government’s Suggested Rules (“SOG’s Suggested Rules”) (county version; city version) provide their own order for deciding on procedural motions, but boards also may adopt their own variations. When multiple motions are pending, having an order to follow helps the board work more efficiently.

The general rule is that substantive motions are always decided last, following the disposal of all procedural motions. Since procedural motions are designed to help complete the substantive item, deciding on them first makes the process of accomplishing the substantive work easier, quicker, and more efficient. For that reason, the board must decide on procedural motions before substantive ones; otherwise, procedural motions lose their effectiveness. Because there can be multiple procedural motions pending simultaneously, both Robert’s and the SOG’s Suggested Rules provide a particular order for deciding on procedural motions. Boards should become familiar with the order they have adopted in their own local rules.


Another procedural aspect of motion practice is the second. A second is when another member of the public body indicates that they support discussing a particular motion. Typically, this manifests by a member stating “I second” or “Seconded” following another member’s motion. Notably, someone who seconds a motion does not have to later vote in favor of it. A second signals only a desire to discuss a motion, not approval. Someone who seconds a motion is not bound to any particular vote on that motion.

Some jurisdictions require seconds before a board can consider any motion. In fact, Robert’s requires seconds for the majority of motions. In contrast, the SOG’s Suggested Rules does not require seconds, so there is some variation in how a board may treat seconds. On the one hand, seconds ensure that the board considers only matters that interest at least two of its members, keeping the board from devoting valuable time and energy to an individual member’s concerns or priorities. However, seconds may also unduly silence minority opinions and prevent the board from having productive conversations. This is particularly true of small boards. Local government boards should weigh these concerns in deciding whether they want to require seconds for motions.


Are all motions debatable? This is another question that procedural rules can answer. Under the SOG’s Suggested Rules, all motions are debatable. (SOG’s Suggested Rules, p. 41 (Cities); SOG’S Suggested Rules, p. 41 (Counties)). Under Robert’s, all substantive motions are debatable but many procedural motions are not. (RONR (10th ed.), p. 77, ll. 29-30). Debate can be extremely important for cooperation, collaboration, healthy communication, and thorough discussion of possible actions. However, unproductive debate can increase ill will and prevent the board from accomplishing public business.

If a board allows debate, the board can still regulate the nature of the debate. For example, a board can enact time limits, and these time limits can differ based on the type of motion the board is discussing. For example, some boards may allow longer debate for substantive motions versus procedural motions. Additionally, certain procedural motions can help control debate, even outside of agreed-upon time limits. One example is the Motion to Call the Question (also called a Motion to Call the Previous Question). The purpose of this motion is to stop debate and force a vote on the underlying pending matter. Under the SOG’s Suggested Rules, a Motion to Call the Question should only be used when everyone who wishes to speak has already had the chance. It should be applied only to debates that have become circular, repetitive, or unproductive. Under Robert’s, a Motion to Call the Question is not debatable and requires a second. (RONR (10th ed.), Table of Rules Relating to Motions, p. 22). Under Robert’s, a board member would move to call the question, and if the motion received a second, the board would then vote on whether to call the question. If the board voted to call the question by a two-thirds majority, the board would then vote on the underlying pending issue. (RONR, (10th ed.), pp. 191-192).

In contrast, under the SOG’s Suggested Rules, a Motion to Call the Question is debatable and does not require a second. Under these rules, a member could move to call the question, and debate could ensue without a second. If the board voted to call the question by simple majority, the board would then vote on the underlying pending matter. (SOG’s Suggested Rules, p. 47 (Cities), p. 46 (Counties)). In this way, motions to call the question can be a useful tool for redirecting debate and keeping the board on track.

As this post has hopefully demonstrated, local rules of procedure can clarify several aspects of motion practice that might otherwise delay substantive board business. Are there any other procedural topics on your mind? I’d love to hear.

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Topics - Local and State Government