A Parliamentary Procedure Primer: Part 3 – Quorum Misconceptions

Published for Coates' Canons on January 13, 2023.

The quorum requirement is a fundamental principle of parliamentary procedure. Quorum refers to the minimum number of people who must be present for a governing body to conduct official business. Taking official action without a quorum present could prompt potential legal challenges and ultimately, invalidation of the action. My colleagues have written extensively on quorum issues (see here, here, and here for examples), but this blog will briefly cover some common quorum misconceptions not otherwise already discussed.

Misconception 1: Someone who is present but excused from voting cannot be counted toward quorum.

This is false. Quorum depends on presence not participation or voting power. Under G.S. 160A-74, quorum for city councils is “a majority of the actual membership of the council, plus the mayor, excluding vacant seats…”. Nothing in that definition signals that the councilmembers must be able to vote to be counted toward quorum. In fact, the definition requires including the mayor in quorum, and mayors can be both voting and non-voting. Similarly, for counties, under G.S. 153A-43, quorum is a majority of the membership of the board, including vacant seats. Again, there is no mention of voting ability, only membership on the board. Taken together, when evaluating quorum, local governments should ask only whether a member is present for a meeting, not whether they can vote at that meeting.

Misconception 2: A member who fails to appear for a meeting should still be counted toward quorum if their absence is unexcused.

This idea likely comes from language in both G.S. 160A-74 and 153A-43 stating, “If a member has withdrawn from a meeting without being excused by majority vote of the remaining members present, he shall be counted as present for the purposes of determining whether a quorum is present.” A close examination of the statutory language indicates that to continue to be counted toward quorum, the absent member must have withdrawn from the meeting. The use of “withdrawn” signifies that the member must have initially been present at the meeting before leaving in order to continue to be counted toward quorum. Someone who never appears for a meeting cannot be said to have withdrawn from that meeting; they were simply never there. As a result, this rule applies to only to members who initially attend a meeting but then leave without being formally excused by the board. In those instances, the person’s unexcused departure does not affect quorum.

Conversely, when the board formally excuses a member and allows them to leave a meeting, the excused person’s absence does impact quorum. Why is that the case? First, Sections 160A-74 and 153A-43 only reference maintaining quorum in instances where someone is not formally excused but leaves anyway. Additionally, recall that quorum is about presence. As a result, if the board has voted to formally allow someone to leave, it can’t then continue to act as if that person is present. The presence requirement for quorum is incompatible with formally authorizing someone’s departure.

In short, only members who are present should be counted toward quorum. If someone who was initially present leaves without board approval, that person can continue to be counted toward quorum. If someone leaves after being formally excused by the board, that person’s absence does impact quorum. After an excused departure, the board should evaluate whether quorum still exists and whether it can continue its meeting.

Misconception 3: In cities, the mayor needs to be present for quorum.

While the mayor always must be included in calculating the number of individuals required for quorum, the mayor does not actually have to be present for a quorum to exist. Let’s consider an example. A city council has five members, one mayor, and no vacancies. Under G.S. 160A-74, to reach quorum, the council needs four members present. (That’s the total membership (5) plus the mayor (1) minus any vacancies (0), getting us to six. Four is more than half of six). The council can reach a quorum of four by having four councilmembers present or by having three councilmembers and the mayor present.  As explained in this blog, interpreting G.S. 160A-74 to require both a majority of councilmembers and the mayor for quorum would effectively invalidate G.S. 160A-70, which mandates selecting a mayor pro tem to serve in the absence or disability of the mayor. Therefore, a combination of councilmembers and mayor or just councilmembers is sufficient to establish quorum.

Misconception 4: Cities must always follow the quorum statute, G.S. 160A-74, even if their charter seems to conflict.

In addition to G.S. 160A-74, city charters commonly provide a method for calculating quorum. What if there is a conflict between the quorum statute and a city’s charter? While Section 160A-82 provides that the statutes in its part (including the quorum statute) do not invalidate conflicting city charter provisions, it does not describe how to deal with the conflicts. For that, we look to Section 160A-3. That section provides three different avenues for resolving charter-statute conflicts.

First, if both the charter and the statute seem to describe everything required for performing a particular duty or function, the city can choose to follow either its charter or the General Statutes. G.S. 160A-3(a). Second, if a charter fails to provide all the details necessary to carry out a particular power, duty, privilege, immunity, or function, cities should supplement the charter with the procedures described in statute. In case of a conflict, however, the charter provisions control. G.S. 160A-3(b). Finally, if statute provides for a certain power, duty, immunity, privilege, or function that an earlier enacted charter expressly denies, then the statute supersedes the charter. G.S. 160A-3(c).

Using the structure in G.S. 160A-3, cities would need to look closely at their charter’s quorum language. Does the charter provide all the information necessary for calculating quorum? If so, the city can likely choose to follow either the charter or G.S. 160A-74 under G.S. 160A-3(a). If not, the city might supplement its charter procedures with those in G.S. 160A-74, but the charter would still control in the case of any conflict.

While quorum seems simple, it can prompt a variety of questions, and misunderstanding its requirements can lead to tricky situations. Understanding what is required for quorum will keep local governments on the right track both legally and procedurally.

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Topics - Local and State Government