Can council presidents make a motion? State boroughs association says yes

Jan. 9—Delmont Council President Andy Shissler had to restrain himself from using his newfound power at the borough's Dec. 13 meeting.

Or perhaps he just didn't want his first presidential motion to be payment of an annual service fee.

"I'd rather not make my first motion paying Westmoreland Transit," Shissler joked.

He had just found out something that seemingly contradicts common, long-held procedure among borough councils that follow Robert's Rules of Order, the nearly universal parliamentary procedure guidelines for conducting public meetings.

Many a council president has mentioned during one meeting or another that they "can't make a motion" or "must entertain a motion."

According to the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, that's simply not the case.

"The council president has a constituency to represent. He does vote unless he has a conflict of interest, plus he can make motions," said Shelley Houk, the PSAB's Director of Research.

That's news to Derry Borough Council President Sara Cowan.

"It was always communicated to me that we (as presidents) don't make motions," Cowan said. "Although it never really made a lot of sense to me. Because I'm an elected official and was on council for a year prior to becoming president. But I'd been going to council meetings before that and never saw a president make a motion."

Robert's Rules of Order originally were laid down in 1876 by Army Officer Henry Martyn Roberts, who, as a young man, was asked to preside over a public meeting at a church in his community, according to He quickly discovered he didn't know how such a meeting should properly be conducted and, shortly afterward, set about writing what would become the first edition of Robert's Rules of Order.

While it has been generally adopted by local governmental bodies across the U.S., it is by no means the final word on how elected officials should conduct public meetings, Houk said.

"Under Robert's Rules, the chairperson doesn't vote," Houk said. "But government is quite different from a public group in society."

Houk said, by voters choosing their representatives, "they are the voices of the electorate, unlike a club."

Becoming council president does not change that, she said.

In Youngwood, council President Scott Palmquist said the only time he has made a motion as president is after temporarily passing his gavel to another council member.

"I've seen two different presidents before me and gotten an idea of what their interpretation is, and what I don't want to do is monopolize things," Palmquist said. "I believe we should have seven individual people thinking on their own, making the best decisions they can for Youngwood."

In Aspinwall, borough council President Tim McLaughlin said he does not make motions at meetings, but it is more a matter of personal choice.

"We have a very structured committee process on council, and I prefer to have motions come from our committee chairs once they've done their research," McLaughlin said. "Honestly, if I'm bringing up a motion, it's probably because someone else hasn't done their job."

Houk said she has seen variations in how council presidents participate.

"Older policies might say that the president either doesn't vote or votes last so they don't influence any other official's vote," she said. "It has been past practice, and most times newer borough council members don't change it, although they can."

In Export, council President Barry Delissio said he simply followed in his predecessor's footsteps.

"It certainly makes sense that a president could make a motion since they vote on everything," he said.

Delissio and Cowan said they aren't much more likely to make motions in the future.

"I'm kind of in the middle," Cowan said. "I run council in a pretty laid-back way where I want to hear everyone's opinions. We have seven people who were all elected and all there for a reason. But I suppose, if it was something I felt very strongly about that needed done, I'd make a motion."

Delissio and McLaughlin said much of what they learned about how to run a council meeting came from discussions, rather than any particular rulebook.

"So much of what I learned aren't necessarily things that are written down anywhere but more of just a protocol thing," McLaughlin said.

Delissio said he prefers to raise a topic and let council's discussion lead the way.

"I usually like to throw things out for a motion by another council member because I always think it's better to get the whole council involved," he said. "It was always my sense to bring something out and let council discuss it."

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick by email at or via Twitter .