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Chapter 1

Massachusetts Select Boards – An Introduction

As a Select Board member, you serve in an important executive role to help guide your community through challenges large and small. This handbook is intended to help you to be an effective local leader, and empower you to embrace the practices of deliberate decision making, careful oversight, and ethical leadership upon which effective local government depends.

Select Board members must strive to work collaboratively in order to deliver quality public services to constituents, while modeling best practices for civic discourse, transparency and accountability in local government. Select Boards should aim to honor community traditions while preparing for inevitable change.

Select Board members are encouraged to use this handbook as a resource, to engage with the Massachusetts Municipal Association to share and learn best practices, and to actively participate in the professional network of local leaders providing excellence in public service. Attending MMA events in order to network with Select Board members from other towns is truly one of the best ways to become an informed, prepared and confident select board member.

History of the Office of Select Board

Early in the history of the Commonwealth, towns had no regularly elected town officials. In order to conduct town business, residents gathered for annual town meetings to approve budgets and laws. During these meetings, they would periodically “select” prominent men within the community to carry out the votes and conduct the business of the town. Gradually, town functions became involved enough to require more consistent supervision. Borrowing the concept of councils from their English heritage, the colonists elected between three and nine “selectmen,” or “townsmen,” to serve for fixed terms. Dorchester (now part of Boston) was the first New England town to organize a local government, in 1633, choosing 12 men to serve as selectmen. Other Massachusetts towns quickly adopted this unique form of government.

In general, selectmen carried out and enforced the votes of the town meeting, but they were also granted authority over specific administrative areas of town government. During the late 17th century, the Massachusetts General Court began passing laws that shaped the character of the office. Selectmen were given significant authority over town finances, care of the poor, schools, admission of new residents into the town, roads and other public works, land regulation, local defense, and the appointment of other town officials not elected by the Town Meeting. Selectmen were solely responsible for the content of Town Meeting warrant articles until 1715, when the General Court passed a law requiring them to accept articles on the petition of 10 or more property owners.

In recent years, there has been a growing trend in towns across the Commonwealth to adopt gender-neutral titles for their principal elected executive boards, primarily transitioning from “Board of Selectmen” to “Select Board.” As of December 2022, more than 180 municipalities have made the change to “Select Board,” a title which more accurately reflects the longstanding participation of both men and women on local government boards. (The first woman elected to a Board of Selectmen in Massachusetts was Helen Cook of Middlefield in 1921.) In 2020, the Massachusetts Selectmen’s Association formally changed its name to the Massachusetts Select Board Association, to align with the growing trend seen in municipalities and to promote inclusivity within the organization.

The Massachusetts General Laws authorize town voters to elect Select Boards of three or five members on an at-large basis, for terms of one or three years. In almost all towns, Select Board members are elected annually for staggered three-year terms.

As the activities of towns became increasingly sophisticated over time, Select Board members were granted greater responsibilities and authority, but new elected officers and boards were entrusted with specialized functions, independent of Select Board control. While it is true that the Select Board serves as the community’s principal elected executive board, it does share executive power with other boards, such as the school committee, the planning board, and the board of health. Consequently, no single executive office has comprehensive control of all “executive branch” town functions. Very often, the Select Board does not have the only word, or even the last word, on what gets done in town.

Government by Committee

A Select Board operates as a collective decision-making body. An individual member of the board may act independently only if specifically authorized by the board. One example of this is the chair, who often acts on behalf of the board on routine matters between meetings. In most towns, the chair of the Select Board is chosen by the Select Board members themselves, usually for a one-year term. In some towns, the position simply rotates among board members each year. Most boards reorganize, and elect a chair, at the first meeting following the annual town election.

The legal authority of Select Board members is limited to actions taken by the board at a legally called, posted meeting with a majority of the board present. Motions are voted in favor of, or opposed by, a majority of the board; no one Select Board member can unilaterally approve a motion.

If a board member wants to accomplish specific objectives, the member must find a way to work with the other members of the board and with other boards in town. This may be difficult for a new board member who ran “against the board,” but an effective Select Board member must become an expert in the political arts of courtesy and compromise.

Legal Authority

The Select Board’s formal, legal responsibilities are scattered throughout hundreds of state statutes, as well as in a town’s bylaws, home rule charter and special laws enacted by the Legislature for that particular town.

While the specific role of Select Board members is broad, it varies from town to town. Generally, Select Boards have several important responsibilities under state law:

  • The power to prepare the Town Meeting warrant
  • The power to make appointments to town boards and offices
  • The power to employ professional administrative staff and town counsel
  • The power to sign warrants for the payment of all town bills
  • The authority to grant licenses and permits

Coordination and Strategic Responsibilities

Apart from legal responsibilities, the Select Board can and should be the group in town that 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. If there is a professional administrator, the Select Board members should work through him or her. In small towns that don’t have a professional administrator, the Select Board members should work through department heads. Select Boards are overstepping their bounds if they get involved in the daily operations of a department or try to solve problems that should be handled by the administrator or staff. Select Board members should stay out of day-to-day municipal management, though they can act as facilitators to bring together citizen groups, state legislators, and municipal staff. The board’s time is best spent concentrating on making the whole of town government work.

Leadership Responsibilities

Effective leaders take up-front, visible roles both on a personal level, and with the board as a whole. Leaders make decisions based on facts, data and logic, even when these decisions are unpopular. They lead by example, not by words, power or manipulation. They look for the root cause of problems. They recognize the difference between the right to take action, and the wisdom of occasionally not taking action.

Most boards are made up of citizens whose philosophies, priorities and personal ambitions differ. An effective board devises ways to work cooperatively — but not necessarily unanimously — toward broad common goals. Teamwork can be developed if individual Select Board members understand that effectiveness is not achieved by individual action, but by a Select Board acting in concert. A critical component of a healthy, productive board is respect among board members. It can take time to earn respect, but Select Board members can do this by speaking and acting in a consistently clear manner, demonstrating empathy and understanding, and owning one’s mistakes and learning from them. Members must be willing to listen carefully to what others are saying, and to disagree in a respectful manner that focuses on the subject matter and does not devolve into personal attacks.

The behavior of the Select Board sets the tone for the town. A board that is frequently stymied by disagreements loses credibility with the public, other town officials and town employees. If members work to overcome differences with integrity and grace, it is far more likely that their lead will be followed.

Taking and Leaving Office

Once someone is elected to a Select Board, the first order of business is to make arrangements to be sworn in by the town clerk. The next step is to become familiar with town government, meet town employees, and learn the logistics of serving as a Select Board member.

A new Select Board member is advised to gather and review a number of resources in addition to this handbook, specifically:

  • The town’s charter (if one exists)
  • A list of key town officials and their phone numbers
  • The phone number of each board member
  • An organizational chart of town staff and officials
  • Any written procedures that the select board has adopted
  • The current year’s budget
  • The most recent town report

Select Board members should become familiar with the services and resources offered by the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the Division of Local Services and the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities.

Select Board members may end their town service voluntarily, or they may fail to be re-elected when their term expires. Occasionally, a select board member may be recalled (see Chapter 3). A Select Board member who chooses to leave office must submit a resignation to the town clerk for it to become official.

Making a Difference

The role of the Select Board is steeped in nearly 400 years of tradition and has played a significant role in creating the communities we live in today. Local government has changed dramatically since colonial times, but citizens still look to Select Board members for leadership and integrity, particularly in difficult times, and take comfort when their elected officials are able to work together respectfully for the betterment of the town. Participating on your Select Board is one of the most important and fulfilling ways to serve your town and have a hand in shaping its future.

MMA's Handbook for Massachusetts Select Boards: Chapter 1: Last Updated: January 16, 2024
MMA's Handbook for Massachusetts Select Boards: Last Updated: March 25, 2024