On Constitution Writing

One of my current projects is rewriting the Constitution and By-Laws of the Parents Association for my daughters’ swim team. It brings home to me the difficulty of writing a good Constitution even for a small and very simple organization. And it’s difficult for me even though in many ways my education, with it’s combination of political theory, constitutional law, and institutional analysis, has ideally prepared me for precisely this task.

My co-committee members, all reasonably bright people, find their eyes glazing over just from reading the document (all 6 pages of it), much less trying to figure out what’s wrong with it. They naturally tend to notice something that applies specifically to the particular Executive Committee office they hold. For example, the new Secretary was surprised to see that her duties involved disseminating minutes of the Executive Committee meeting, which she noticed primarily because she couldn’t remember previous secretaries ever distributing minutes to her.

Meanwhile, my experience is that problems leap off the page, grab my brain by the stem, and shake it around a bit. Which isn’t to claim that I spotted all the problems, by any means. The advantage of a committee is that even those without my kind of background do notice something they think can be improved, and most often that was something that I had overlooked. The bulk of the proposed changes may have come from me, but there were unique contributions from each committee member. That’s worth remembering if you ever have to write or rewrite such a document–no one person has a monopoly on the knowledge and ideas relevant to the task.

The overall structure of our Constitution was fine, but in addition to a number of minor tweaks, it had two major substantive flaws, with the result that we hadn’t actually been following our own Constitution. In fact in one case we couldn’t follow it because of its own contradiction.

One problem was a lack of specification for authority and responsibility. Each member of the Executive Committee is tasked to chair a designated committee, but without specification of who is responsible for what committee. The article that lists committees says, “Below is a list of proposed chairmen and their responsibilities,” followed not by a list of who chairs what committee, but just a list of committees. The problem with this is lines of responsibility are unclear–if a task doesn’t get done, there’s no certainty about who dropped the ball. That’s a sure-fire recipe for the ball getting dropped. A lot. One of my primary goals in the revisions is to change that by formally tasking Executive Committee officers with specific committee chairships. It’s not necessary that they actually do any committee work themselves, just that they ensure that someone on their committee gets it done.

The biggest problem was an impossible-to-abide-by election structure. A nominating committee is supposed to send out a solicitation for nominations three weeks before our spring banquet, with nominations to be completed no later than three days before the banquet. Then they’re supposed to create ballots and send those out…three weeks before the spring banquet, with ballots to be returned no later than three days before the banquet. In other words, the Constitution mandates that we run the nomination process and the election simultaneously. Or in yet other words, the election is supposed to begin before anyone has yet been nominated. It may not come as a surprise to learn that we haven’t been following our own rules on how to run our elections. What may come as a surprise is that apparently no-one ever noticed that we weren’t following, and couldn’t follow, our own rules.

Fortunately that’s easily fixed, although for our purposes figuring out the dates for running these things took a little thought. Ultimately a simple solution was proposed of simply anchoring the nominations to the first end-of-season regional meet, and the election to the state meet. This provides prominent points in time to work off of, more easily remember–for swim parents–than, say, Feb. 1 or March 15. I regret to say this elegant idea did not come from me. (Note again what I said above about the value of working with others on constitution-writing.)

The hardest part comes when dealing with something that is apparently odd, but which may have a logic behind it that you’re simply not catching. The nominations process included the following oddities (as they seem to me):

  • While anyone can nominate anyone, including themselves, the nominating committee would “first contact the current officers” to see if they wanted to be renominated. But only after their first term, not after their second term, even though they are eligible for a third (and final) term.
  • The nominating committee would create a nominating ballot with room for people to submit two names, but “one of which may be pre-selected (by the committee) with a former officer’s name, if running for a second term. In other words, association members can nominate two people if no former officer is running, but only one person if a former officer is running. If there’s a defensible logic to that, it escapes me.
  • After the nominations period closes, “the nominating committee will call each person (starting with the person securing the most nominations and working down) and ask if they are willing to run for the office nominated for, until they have secured the allotted nominations for each office.” This would potentially leave the persons who had nominated themselves, and not asked any others, off the ballot in favor of someone who had simply asked three or four additional people to nominate them. That strikes me as unfair. But it may not be an actual problem, as nowhere does it actually state the number that constitutes the “allotted nominations.” On the other hand, it says that an election may run with just one person on the ballot “if only on person consents to the nomination.” So if the nominating committee were only to call the person with the most nominations, and no one else, he or she would technically be the only person who formally consented to the nomination.
  • Of course our real practical problem tends to be persuading anyone, even a single person, to agree to be nominated. That’s a common problem in small organizations where there is responsibility without either power or compensation. (However it’s a better problem to have than the other one that is common in small organizations–the person who is too damn eager to be nominated so they can be in charge.)

    Ultimately I decided that these provisions should simply be stricken and replaced with the much more straightforward process of not giving any favoritism to current Executive Committee members (they’re perfectly capable of re-nominating themselves, I think) and allowing all consenting nominees on the ballot, without suggesting a limit. That feels right, and intellectually it sounds right. But somebody at some time came up with a specific alternative, and with neither documentation nor oral history of the event, I have no idea if they were simply crazy, as it seems to me, or clever in a way that I’m not grasping. There’s a part of me that always suspects that a non-obvious approach must not have been hit upon randomly, as obvious approaches are, obviously, more likely to be thought of. However as I’m probably better educated about political rules and processes than any former member of our swim parents association, and as there are more ways to do things wrong than right, the odds are that this was just one of those bizarre ideas people occasionally come up with that are best aborted before they are ever put into effect.

    All in all, it’s been an interesting exercise. We still have to finalize our revised draft, and then get it approved by the membership. But this is the type of organization where most people are willing–too willing, really–to avoid doing any heavy lifting, and just rely on others. At least two members of our board are very highly regarded by others, as is our coach. If those three say “vote for it,” it should pass almost without comment, and certainly without controversy. That’s good from my perspective, as I’m the Association President and this is my initiative. But as a political scientist, I have to repress a small shudder, as I recognize that the only way for such a process to go this smoothly is for the electorate to be complacent and inattentive.


About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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One Response to On Constitution Writing

  1. Jim Babka says:

    James, Couldn’t your group simply decide to have a living, breathing constitution? 🙂

    But seriously, earlier in the decade, I was the director of an organization that built a group of plaintiffs, hired attorneys, and took a case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. There were multiple plaintiff groups in this case, and when our turn came, one of our lawyers got up and said that the first rule of constitutional jurisprudence is to recognize that every word was carefully pored over and chosen — thus, each word or phrase has meaning. He then gave a panel of federal judges a brief English lesson.

    That idea made instant sense to me. My experience has been similar to yours described above, in that no one has a monopoly on ideas. Nor does anyone have a monopoly on how the finished product will look. My comparative experience happened in the context of political groups, and everyone on the drafting committee, as well as many on the general committee, cared how it was done, because they understood that it was the ultimate authority and direction — the group would live with the results. They comprehended what was at stake.

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