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Chapter 3

Organization of Town Government

City vs. Town Distinction

The basic distinction between town and city forms of government was spelled out by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1854:1

“The marked and characteristic distinction between a town organization and that of a city is that in the former all the qualified inhabitants meet, deliberate, act and vote in their natural and personal capacities in the exercise of their corporate powers; whereas, under a city government, all this is done by their representatives.”

The issue of what determines a city versus a town was further explored by the Appeals Court in 1978, after Methuen adopted a “home rule” charter providing for a town council to serve as the community’s legislative branch. In Chadwick v. Scarth, on the question of whether Methuen is a city or a town, the Appeals Court found that, “the retention of the name ‘Town’ by the municipality is immaterial and … the substance of the charter which has been adopted controls.” The court ruled that “Methuen clearly has a representative form of government,” which qualifies it as a city.

Note that “representative” in these cases refers to a council that serves as the legislative body in a city, whereas towns have Town Meetings as their legislative body (whether an Open Town Meeting or a representative one).

Generally, in Massachusetts a city is governed by a small elected legislative body, (the council) and an elected or appointed chief executive (the mayor or manager). Towns are governed by a large legislative body (Open or Representative Town Meeting) and a small elected executive board (the Select Board). If a municipality has a Town Meeting, it must be a town. Most towns also have an appointed administrator or manager that serves as the chief administrative officer.

A community might choose to refer to itself as a “town,” but that does not, in itself, mean that it has a town form of government. Agawam, Amherst and Franklin are among the communities that adopted a “city” form of government as defined in state law — either mayor-council or council-manager — but continue to use the designation “town.” (It should be noted that the Massachusetts Constitution precludes any municipality with a population below 12,000 from adopting a city form of government.)

Select Board-Town Meeting Form of Government

The Select Board-Town Meeting form of government, established in colonial times and reaffirmed in various statutes throughout the Commonwealth’s history, remains the form of government in nearly 300 of the state’s municipalities.

Town Meeting, the legislative body of a town, has responsibility for appropriations (including passing the annual budget), authorizing debt issuance, and enacting local laws, known as bylaws.

State law recognizes two town forms of government: Representative Town Meeting and Open Town Meeting. In both forms, the Select Board serves as chief executive and must have an odd number of members — either three or five in all cases but one — usually serving staggered terms. The Select Board may appoint a town manager or administrator position.

State law2 requires that members of the Select Board and the school committee be elected, as well as Town Meeting members in towns with a Representative Town Meeting and the town moderator in towns with an Open Town Meeting. The powers and duties of the town manager or administrator are determined locally; there is no state definition.

The two town meeting forms of government have the following unique characteristics:

  1. Select Board and Representative Town Meeting
    • Town must have a population of 6,000 or more
    • Voters elect Town Meeting representatives from town precincts
    • Size of Town Meeting determined locally; most are in the range of 200 to 250 voters
  2. Select Board and Open Town Meeting
    • All registered voters may participate in Open Town Meeting
    • Open Town Meeting is the only legislative body option available to towns with populations of 6,000 or fewer

Many but not all towns with an Open Town Meeting have a town manager or administrator position. All towns with a Representative Town Meeting have a management position, though this is not a requirement.

For more information about forms of local government in Massachusetts, visit the MMA’s Local Government 101 guide.

Definition and Role of Charters

The form of government in a municipality is often determined by the provisions of its charter. The classic definition of the word “charter,” when used in connection with municipal governments, comes from the National Civic League (formerly the National Municipal League) and is found in the league’s “Guide for Charter Commissions,” 6th edition (2011):

“A charter is the foundation of a local government and functions as the municipal equivalent of a state or federal constitution, setting forth guiding principles for governance. Composed by citizens, a charter specifies the most fundamental relationships between a government and its community. It establishes the framework for how a local government operates in terms of its structure, responsibilities, functions, and processes.”

A charter is different from a bylaw or an ordinance in the same way that, at the state or national level, a constitutional provision is different from a statute. A charter, like a constitution, is the basic law establishing the form of government and distributing the powers, duties and responsibilities to the various units of the government and setting out how and when those powers will be exercised. The charter is the higher form of law, and other actions taken by the government must be subservient to and consistent with it.

The Home Rule Amendment [Article 89] to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts explicitly provides that every city or town in the Commonwealth is entitled to a charter and outlines the process for the adoption, revision and amendment of a charter. The Home Rule Procedures Act (Chapter 43B) further defines the powers of cities and towns to enact their own legislation on many subjects (so long as they do not conflict with federal or state law) without the need to wait for advance approval from the Legislature.

In 1984, the Massachusetts Legislature adopted a number of amendments to the General Laws intended to clarify the intent and the purpose of the Home Rule Amendment. Among these statutory changes was the insertion of a new clause into Chapter 4, Section 7, defining the term “charter” as follows:

“‘Charter,’ when used in connection with the operation of city and town government, shall include a written instrument adopted, amended or revised pursuant to the provisions of chapter forty-three B, which establishes and defines the structure of city and town government for a particular community and which may create local offices, and distribute powers, duties and responsibilities among local offices and which may establish and define certain procedures to be followed by the city or town government. Special laws enacted by the general court applicable only to one city or town shall be deemed to have the force of a charter and may be amended, repealed and revised in accordance with the provisions of chapter forty-three B unless any such special law contains a specific prohibition against such action.”

The word “charter” may also include the provisions of the General Laws in force relating to that city or town. These statutory provisions may not be mentioned in a municipal charter, but they are automatically read into the charter and become a part of it. This is particularly true in Massachusetts, because the powers and duties of most local offices, including Select Boards, are set forth at length in state law. Note, however, that Section 20 of Chapter 43B specifically allows a municipal charter to supersede the provisions of state laws relating to municipal charter matters.

Town Meeting takes place in Lexington.

Town charters in Massachusetts present a wide variation both in form and substance and preclude practical classification beyond the form of its legislative body, which is either Open or Representative Town Meeting. Some charters deal mainly with the fundamentals of structure and function and omit references to those local offices that are extensively governed by state law. Others specify more or less completely the municipal organization and the powers, duties and responsibilities of the officers, subordinates and agents.

Ways to Adopt or Revise a Charter

Here are the two pathways for adopting or revising a town charter.

Home Rule Charters

“Home rule” charters, adopted by local voters pursuant to the Home Rule Amendment and Chapter 43B (the Home Rule Procedures Act), have generally provided, in one document, a complete description of the local government, its structure, and its operating procedures. The intent of the charter is:

  • To identify all major elected and appointed officers, boards and commissions, including their size, composition and terms of office
  • To describe the role and responsibilities of a management position
  • To provide guidance for financial management practices
  • To describe the organization of municipal departments and/or provide a procedure for reorganization of municipal functions
  • To address standard practices, such as meeting and record requirements for multi-member bodies
  • To authorize the use of recall under certain conditions
  • To provide a timeline for actions that may be necessary as the government transitions from its current form to the form as described in the charter

Special Act Charters

“Special act” charters, enacted by the Legislature at the request of a particular town, are often as comprehensive as home rule charters in providing a picture of the town’s structure, while also providing guidance for financial actions, such as the preparation of the operating and capital budgets, as well as recall procedures.

Several towns undertook the “special act” process prior to the adoption of the Home Rule Amendment, at a time when a change in form of government could be achieved only by the enactment of special legislation. Section 8 of the Home Rule Amendment reaffirms that the Legislature can take such action upon the request of a particular town, so some towns have pursued this route since 1966.

Some towns have used special act charters to create and define a management position, and many of these chose to leave most or all of their government structure intact, including the election of boards, commissions and officers.

Options for Changing Local Government Structure

Select Board members examining the form of government or appointing a town government study committee to consider questions of structure and organization are advised to look for a structure that supports clarity and accountability among and between all town offices, while respecting the premise of voter participation in major decisions.

Many towns continue to operate without a charter under the state’s statutes relating to local government organization.3 These statutes address the organization and procedural requirements of Town Meeting, local elected and appointed officers and boards, options for consolidated departments, and municipal finance and financial officers.

State law also provides several routes for towns to make changes in the organizational structure of local government:

  1. Election of a charter commission and subsequent adoption of the commission’s proposed charter
  2. A petition for enactment of special municipal legislation
  3. Using bylaws and “permissive” legislation to enact structural change

Below is a brief summary of each of the three routes for changing local government. For a more in-depth review, see “Several Options Exist for Changing Local Government Structure,” from the MMA’s Municipal Advocate magazine, which discusses each option in detail. The Department of Housing and Community Development has published a helpful guide: “Changing Massachusetts Local Government Structure,” and the Division of Local Services has published a helpful one-page guide. A Massachusetts Municipal Management Association webinar, “Form of Government FAQs,” addresses common questions that arise when a community is considering a change in governance.

Town Manager/Administrator

For most towns, the complexity of running town government demands that there be a professional administrator — e.g., town manager, town administrator or administrative assistant — to assist the Select Board. While these positions must be authorized by the town charter, Town Meeting or a special act of the Legislature, it is the Select Board that does the hiring. Depending on the responsibility vested in the position, the professional administrator can have a significant beneficial impact on the ability of Select Board members to do their job and on how the town is run.

A 2022 webinar from the Massachusetts Select Board Association provides guidance about best practices for hiring a town manager. Additional resources include the International City/County Management Association’s recruitment guidelines (2019), and the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association’s Massachusetts Recruitment Guidelines Handbook (2008).

The powers, duties and responsibilities of a town management position, by whatever title, are determined and defined locally. Most towns operating under home rule charters, special acts with the force of a charter, or a special act establishing a management position define the duties and authority of such positions. The office of “town manager” or “town administrator” is not defined in state law, and there is no statutory job description for this role beyond a provision in state law4 allowing towns to appoint an executive secretary or town administrator.

The long-held view that town managers have more authority than town administrators has no basis in state law. Some town manager positions have fairly modest authority, and some town administrators have significant authority.

The “strong town manager” reference is also a matter of perspective or individual town experience with the position. Some ways in which the position could be considered “strong” are the extent of appointment authority, authority for the direction of the budget and capital plan process, and assumption of certain duties previously assigned to the Select Board (e.g., approval of payments).

Each community has approached this question differently, and the expectations for these positions by town leaders have evolved over time, so there are myriad job descriptions for such positions. Examples from which to draw ideas are readily available on town websites that include bylaws and charters.

State law5 specifies that a town can enter into an employment contract with the manager or administrator.

MMA's Handbook for Massachusetts Select Boards: Chapter 3: Last Updated: January 19, 2024
MMA's Handbook for Massachusetts Select Boards: Last Updated: March 25, 2024