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.

Gavel next to stack of books.
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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 must include sections on:

The bylaws (rules of procedure) of the zoning board of appeals must include:

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 listed above, it is advisable for planning commissions and appeals boards to also include a section on parliamentary authority. This section describes what meeting rules will be used by the board to govern meetings that haven’t already been defined by other higher order rules. Higher order rules refer to rules prescribed by federal, state, local ordinances and the body’s 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 12 editions of Robert’s Rules with the most recent being from 2020 with its new title, “Roberts Rules of Order Newly Revised (RONR) 12th Edition.” 

The twelfth edition of “RONR” has changes from earlier versions that have been summarized by the Robert’s Rules Association. Included among these are sample rules for electronic meetings and summary explanations on topics like postponing a motion and reconsidering a vote by a body. This edition also has improved formatting for easier cross-reference between digital and print versions.

In addition to “RONR,” there are other rules of order a board can consider for adoption. Various publishers have simplified versions of “RONR like “AIP Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure” by the American Institute of Parliamentarians, 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, or two chamber, legislative bodies. “Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure” by Paul Mason and “Jefferson’s Manual (Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States)” by Thomas Jefferson 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 being adopted. For example, one way to cite the most recent edition of “RONR” is to write “Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th edition; by Henry M. Robert III, Daniel H. Honemann, Thomas J. Balch, Daniel Seabold, Shmuel Gerber (Public Affairs, 2020).” One’s bylaws might read, for example:  

“The rules contained in the 12th edition (2020) of “Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised shall govern the [Insert body] 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 [Insert body] may adopt.”

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

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 rules 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 Tribal Nations)
  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.
  15. Board customs (i.e., unwritten ways things have always been done by the board)

By establishing quality bylaws, planning commissions and zoning boards of appeals can meet their statutory obligations and create transparent processes for conducting their business effectively. Understanding your body’s bylaws, as well as the parliamentary authority used and which to consult is key to fulfilling your role as a member.

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