City vs. Town

59 Cities 292 Towns
Executive:Mayor, Manager, or both Executive:Select Board

Most also have a professional manager (such as a Town Manager)

Legislative branch:Council Legislative branch:Town Meeting

If it has Town Meeting, it must be a town.

The Massachusetts Constitution makes a distinction between a “city form of government” and a “town” form, but a community with a city form is not required to refer to itself as a city.

In Massachusetts
CityTownTown with a city form of government

Fourteen communities with a city structure still refer to themselves as a town.

These places are sometimes described as “the city known as the town of X.”

They use the term “Town Council” for their legislative body.

  • Agawam
  • Amherst
  • Barnstable
  • Braintree
  • Bridgewater
  • East Longmeadow
  • Franklin
  • North Attleborough
  • Palmer
  • Randolph
  • Southbridge
  • West Springfield
  • Weymouth
  • Winthrop

City Executive Officers

MayorProfessional ManagerBoth a Mayor AND a City Manager

City or Town? Who Decides?

Decisions about which form of government to adopt — including whether to be a city or a town — are made by local voters. Under the Massachusetts Constitution, a municipality must have at least 12,000 people to adopt a city form of government, but there’s no upper limit on the size of a town.

Fun Fact:
Brookline is the largest town, with 64,000 residents.
Palmer is the smallest city, with 12,300 residents.

Select Boards

Select Boards are the chief executive body in a town. Their formal, legal responsibilities are spread throughout hundreds of state laws, as well as the town’s bylaws, its home rule charter, and special acts enacted by the Legislature for a particular town.

While selectmen are the principal administrative officers of the town, other boards, including the school committee, the planning board, and the board of health, may wield at least as much authority over certain aspects of town government.

Apart from strict legal responsibilities, the Select Board sets policy and strategic direction, coordinates the activities of other boards, and hears appeals and resolves problems that have not been settled at lower levels.

Powers and Responsibilities

  • Prepare and issue the Town Meeting warrant (agenda)
  • Make appointments to town boards and offices
  • Employ professional administrative staff and town counsel
  • Approve the payment of all town bills
  • Grant licenses and permits
  • Approve collective bargaining agreements*
  • Review budget recommendations before they go before the Town Meeting
  • Place any Proposition 2½ question on the local ballot

*With the exception of those union employees in the School Department, which are approved by the School Committee

Position Particulars

  • 3 or 5 Members (more populous towns generally have 5)*
  • Elected at-large (not by district)
  • Elections each spring for staggered, three-year terms**
  • Typically meet weekly or biweekly (sometimes less in July and August)
  • Must have posted public meetings with a majority of the board present in order to have legal authority
  • Nearly 1,200 Select Board members serve in 292 towns in Mass.
  • Volunteer position (though may receive a small stipend for their work)


*Wakefield has a seven-member “Town Council,” but its duties are essentially the same as those of a Select Board.

**In Saugus, Select Board members are elected biennially, in the fall (of odd-numbered years), for two-year terms.

The first Board of Selectmen in Massachusetts was established in 1633 in Dorchester (then independent of Boston).

Terminology Note:
Historically, most “Select Boards” were known as a “Board of Selectmen,” but towns have been gravitating to the gender-neutral term over the past decade or so.
Currently, about two-thirds of these boards use the term “Select Board” and about one-third use “Board of Selectmen.”

Select Board ≠ City Council

While Select Boards and City Councils are the highest-level elected boards in their communities, their roles and responsibilities are not at all similar.

Select Boards are the chief executive in a town, while Councils are the legislative body in a city.

Their similarity ends with the fact that they are elected by local voters in a municipal election.

Town Meeting

The word “Town Meeting” can refer to both the event and the legislative body. As an event, one might say, “The spring Town Meeting will begin next Tuesday”; and as a body, “The budget must be approved by a vote of the Town Meeting.”

Believed to be the oldest form of democracy in the United States, Town Meetings predate the American Revolution by more than a century. It is a rare continuing form of direct democracy in the U.S., found only in New England states.

State law requires every town to have an annual Town Meeting.

Powers and Responsibilities

  • Receive reports from a number of town officials and boards.
  • Pass the town budget for the coming fiscal year (July 1 to June 30)
  • Authorize debt issuances
  • Enact local laws, known as bylaws, including zoning bylaws
  • Approve fund transfers and expenditures for specific projects
  • Establish studies and committees

Procedural Particulars

  • Articles (proposals) are placed on the Warrant (agenda) by the Select Board.
  • Articles can be placed at the request of town departments or by a petition signed by at least 10 registered voters of the town.
  • All towns hold an Annual Town Meeting, in the spring. Many towns also hold one or more Special Town Meetings* at other times of the year.
  • 260 towns have an Open Town Meeting, meaning any registered voter may attend and vote.
  • 32 towns have a Representative Town Meeting.
  • A town must have at least 6,000 residents to have a Representative Town Meeting.
  • Representatives for Representative Town Meetings are elected typically by precinct, for three-year terms.
  • Most Representative Town Meetings in Massachusetts range from 50 to 429 members, with an average size of 214.
  • The Town Moderator and Town Clerk must attend the Town Meeting.

* Some towns hold these on an as-needed basis, while others hold them as a matter of routine. Special Town Meetings typically have a much shorter agenda than the annual ones. There is no limit on the number of Special Town Meetings a town can hold in any given year, though in most cases it’s just one.


The mayor is the highest-ranking official in a city government and serves as the chief executive officer.

Powers and Responsibilities

The powers of a mayor vary from one city to the next, but generally they:

  • Oversee the administrative functions of the city
  • Develop an annual budget proposal for consideration by the Council
  • Execute the laws and ordinances passed by the Council and, to some degree, the state and federal governments
  • Appoint and supervise department heads and other officials
  • Provide governmental services to constituents
  • Have authority to veto acts of the Council
  • In most cities, the mayor also serves on the School Committee, often as the chair.

Position Particulars

  • There are 47 mayors serving Massachusetts cities.
  • 24 serve for two-year terms; 23 serve for four
  • Most are directly elected by the voters*

* In Cambridge and Lowell, mayors are selected by the City Council from among its members.

City Councils

City Councils act as the legislative branch in communities with a city form of government, as well as the policymaking body. Whereas Town Meeting is a form of direct democracy, the City Council is a representative body, somewhat like a local version of Congress.

Powers and Responsibilities

  • Approve, reduce or reject the budget proposal submitted by the chief executive (but cannot increase it)
  • Authorize debt and placement of any Proposition 2½ question on the local ballot
  • Pass local legislation, known as ordinances
  • Consider the city’s goals, major projects, infrastructure improvements, community growth, land use, finances and strategic planning.

Position Particulars

  • Roughly 600 councillors serve in 59 communities in Massachusetts
  • Two-year terms*
  • Most councils have combination of at-large seats and district, ward or precinct seats
  • Odd number of members, typically between nine and 13 **
  • In “continuous session,” typically meeting weekly or biweekly (though sometimes less frequently in July and August)

Note: 14 Massachusetts communities with a city form of government still refer to themselves as a town, and thus have a Town Council, but the distinction is in name only.

*except in Barnstable and Winthrop, where they have four-year terms
**except Newton’s Council, which has 24 members

Terminology Note:
Historically, many cities used the term “Board of Aldermen” to identify their legislative body. The title is derived from an Old English title meaning “elder man.”

The last “Board of Aldermen” in Massachusetts changed its name to “City Council” in 2019.

Town Managers and Administrators

The Town Manager or Administrator (among other titles) is the chief administrative officer in a town.

Powers and Responsibilities

The powers, duties, and responsibilities of a town management position are determined and defined locally, by a special act approved by the Legislature or the town charter.

Most Town Managers have delegated appointment authority, authority for the direction of the budget and capital plan process, responsibility for coordinating financial operations, and other duties as assigned by the Select Board.

Position Particulars

  • The office of “Town Manager” or “Town Administrator” is not defined anywhere in state law, and there is no statutory job description for this role
  • The MMA keeps a catalog of some sample job descriptions, that can give an idea of some of the details
Terminology Note:
While 177 towns use the title Town Administrator and 79 use Town Manager — accounting for 93% of these positions — other titles for similar roles in Massachusetts towns include Town Coordinator, Executive Secretary, Chief Administrative Officer, and General Manager.

City Managers

Twelve communities in Massachusetts have a city form of government but do not have a Mayor; they have a city (or “town”) manager as their chief administrative officer.

These 12 communities are:

  • Amherst
  • Barnstable
  • Bridgewater
  • Chelsea
  • East Longmeadow
  • Franklin
  • North Attleborough
  • Palmer
  • Randolph
  • Southbridge
  • Watertown
  • Winthrop

Three communities have a Mayor as well as a City Manager:

  • Cambridge
  • Lowell
  • Worcester
Terminology Note:
All but Chelsea and Watertown still refer to themselves as a “town.”

Powers and Responsibilities

Much like Town Managers, the powers, duties and responsibilities of the manager are determined and defined locally.

Most have delegated appointment authority, authority for the direction of the budget and capital plan process, responsibility for coordinating financial operations, and other duties as assigned by the Council.

Position Particulars

  • The City (or Town) Manager in these communities is appointed by the City or Town Council.

City and Town Clerks

The position of City or Town Clerk is one of the oldest in municipal government, and the clerk’s office is considered a focal point of city and town halls.

Powers and Responsibilities

  • Serves as the chief public records access officer; maintains municipal records and materials; provides certified copies of vital records (e.g., births, deaths and marriages)
  • Posts municipal board and committee meeting agendas
  • Administers oath of office for all municipal officials, elected and appointed
  • Supervises voter registration and conduct of all elections; certifies nomination papers and initiative petitions; serves on the board of registrars
  • Conducts the annual city or town census and prepares the street list of residents
  • Certifies bonds, contracts, bylaws, resolutions and other documents
  • Oversees compliance of all employees and board and committee members with conflict of interest and state ethics law documentation
  • Issues licenses: marriage, dogs, storage of flammables, business certificates, and raffle permits

Position Particulars

Every city and town must have a clerk.

Some are elected and some are appointed.

Clerks provide information and work with all municipal departments, boards and committees, while complying with state and local statutes.

Town Clerks serve as the official record keeper at Town Meetings. They submit documentation for all post-Town Meeting requirements, including bylaw changes to the Office of the Attorney General, debt authorizations to the Department of Revenue, and state law adoptions to the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

City Clerks are the official minute takers for the City Council. They maintain the City Council document system database and publish, on a yearly basis, all ordinances and amended codes.

Municipal Elections

With very rare exceptions, municipal elections are held separately from statewide and federal elections.

Interesting note: Saugus is the only town in Massachusetts that follows a city election schedule.

Statewide and Federal Elections

For governor, attorney general, U.S. Congress, and other state, federal and county offices and ballot questions


For mayors, councils, select boards, and other local offices

  • In November of even-numbered years (except for special elections)
  • Towns hold an annual election each spring, on dates generally determined by their town charter. There is no statewide date for town elections. Town elections across the state are held on dates ranging from March through June.
  • Cities hold elections in November of odd-numbered years, and the officials who are elected take office during the first several days of the following January.

Candidates have a party affiliation

Nonpartisan — With only a handful of exceptions, municipal election candidates are not affiliated with a political party, and there is no such designation on the ballot.

Municipal Election Dates

See all dates MMA has collected