Postpone or Table? Parliamentary Procedure Advice

It frequently happens at meetings.  Now does not seem the time to discuss or act on an issue.  But there the issue is ready for you on your meeting agenda.  Do you move to table, postpone or something else?  What is the difference?    We asked Professor Larry Larmer, Local Government Center Outreach Specialist and authority on Roberts Rules of Order for advice.  Here is his answer:

There are two types of “postponement.”  One is to postpone indefinitely, that is, to set a pending motion aside with no particular intention of ever taking it up again.  If a body postpones something indefinitely, it cannot be taken up again in the same meeting except through reconsideration.  It can be renewed (i.e., put on the agenda) at a future meeting, although there may be some time limitations specific to the body.  For example, if a village is following the League of Municipalities model procedures, a matter that is voted down may not be brought up again within 30 days.  It’s not entirely clear, but this limitation would probably also apply to a matter that has been postponed indefinitely since postponing indefinitely has the same effect as voting something down.

Postponing to a definite time is quite different.  The body does want to resume deliberation on the matter but for a variety of reasons wishes to so do at a later time – either later in the same meeting or in a future meeting.  When a body agrees to postpone a matter to a specific time, it has ordered that the agenda include the item.  The body may postpone something to a specific meeting or until after an event takes places, e.g., “until after the vacancy is filled.”  This latter approach, while often used, does not really assure the body that they will actually get back to the matter, only that it will not take up the matter until the event has occurred

When a matter is tabled, it is set aside and the body doesn’t specify when or whether it will take up the matter again.   Once an item is set aside by tabling, the body must agree to take it from the table in order to get back to it.  Here is an example I observed while watching the county board on cable TV.  While deliberating a matter, it was discovered that a relevant piece of information was not available in the chamber, but it was in the clerk’s office.  The body tabled the matter so that the information could be retrieved and went to other matters on the agenda. When the information was brought back to the chamber, the body could decide when to get back to it.  They may, also, prefer to take care of other business first, thus the motion to take the matter from the table enable them to take up the issue at the time they chose.

The confusion between “postpone to a definite time” and “table” comes from the frequent habit of members moving to “table until next meeting (or some other future time)” when they probably want to get back to the matter at a specific time and technically should say ‘postpone.”  Usually, it doesn’t matter if we know what is meant although I know of one example when a city council got itself unnecessarily confused when they started to take up a matter that has been “tabled” to the current meeting and a member said, to this effect, “wait, this matter has been tabled, so we need a motion to take from the table before we can take it up.”  Using the correct terminology is of some importance.  If a matter is not taken from the table by the end of the next regular meeting, it must be renewed within any time limits specific to that body.  Thus, both table and postpone indefinitely are sometime used to defeat measures without the body having expressed itself one way or the other.

Larry Larmer