McCauley: It's not just city vs. town March 12, 2016
Sharon Pinardi McCauley Metrowest Daily News
Massachusetts offers many models for municipal government

Prior to 1966, Massachusetts municipalities functioned with open town meeting, standard representative town meeting, or a city plan charter (A or B mayor-council or D or E council-manager) provided in the General Laws. Many locales modified these by enacting a special act or special act charter through the Massachusetts Legislature. With the advent of the Home Rule Amendment, towns and cities began to design charters with even more customized and hybrid versions of local government structure.

For the average citizen, comprehending the wide-ranging basics, as well as subtleties of local governance across the commonwealth is quite an undertaking. As Framingham begins its charter commission process, the following outline of the major features of municipal government in Massachusetts may help sort through the options available.

Open Town Meeting (OTM) (Sherborn, Acton and Upton are examples):

  • Required with less than 6,000 residents; larger populated towns still use it.
  • Legislative body is TM - all eligible voters may fully participate, i.e. vote on all issues.
  • Representative (Limited) Town Meeting (RTM) (Framingham, Natick, Milford):
  • Optional form with 6.000 or greater residents.
  • TM members elected by precinct, typically with staggered terms.

Common Features of RTM and OTM:

  • Fall and Spring Town Meeting sessions (often several evenings) with special sessions called as needed.

  • TM appropriates monies, votes on bylaws (reviewed by state attorney general).

  • TM members exempt from state conflict-of-interest laws unless specified otherwise in bylaws.

  • Executive body is a board of selectmen (BOS), usually three, five, or more, elected at large serving staggered terms; appoints department heads, enforces town laws, sets policies, reviews licenses, etc.

  • Town administrator or town manager manages day-to-day operations, with or without authority to appoint department heads (requiring or not the consent of BOS); formerly named executive or administrative secretary.

  • Financial Committee - appointed by elected town moderator, rarely elected by voters or TM; also called Advisory, Appropriations, or Ways and Means Committee.

  • City Models: Optional for municipalities with 12,000 or greater residents:

  • Mayor-Council (Marlborough, Newton, Waltham):

  • Mayor (two or four-year term; must reside in community) elected by voters as chief executive and administrator; in charge of submitting budget and overall management of government; appoints department heads (with council consent "weak mayor" or without consent "strong mayor").

  • Mayor may or may not be member and/or chairperson of school committee. (In 1989 Attleboro's charter replaced mayor on SC with three at-large seats.)

  • Council is the legislative body, popularly elected either at-large or by district/ward though most often a combination, with two-year terms. The number of seats varies.

  • Council is in session all year; it frames and passes ordinances ("bylaws" of cities), approves budget and appropriations.

  • Checks and balances, as with governor-legislature/president-congress: Council actions, such as ordinances, go into effect after 10 days without mayor's signature; mayor has veto power over council's actions; council has two-thirds veto override power.

  • Financial Committee (or under other name) is indirectly elected by voters, since it is most often comprised of council members or is a council sub-committee appointed by council president.

  • Council-Manager (Franklin, Cambridge, Watertown):

  • Council is usually seven or nine members; district and/or at-large all with equal voting though no veto power.

  • Council members elect a chairperson (Franklin), council president, or a "mayor" (Cambridge) from among its at-large members;

  • Some locales give a title/position to the at-large member earning the top popular vote or popular vote from among at-large council members running specifically for council president/SC member (Watertown).

  • Acts as head of the government for ceremonial, civil process serving, and emergency purposes with governor, police, and military. (Nationally, council-elected "mayors" are known as "weak mayors.")

  • Some like Cambridge (Plan E) use proportional voting for councilors.

  • Council powers similar to city councils except actions are in force immediately with passage without requiring signature of "mayor."

  • Town or city manager appointed by council; may or may not be required to reside in community; is often the chief executive and administrator with powers similar to elected "mayor" to appoint department heads with or without consent of council consent, though without veto power.

  • Financial Committee (may be under other names) - indirectly elected by the voters as the council or sub-committee of council; often non-council members appointed by council or council president.

  • Council president may or may not be a member of school committee, rarely is chair.

As this outline shows, New England municipal government is confusing, especially for those who didn't grow up here. Citizens and charter commissions would benefit from a state mandate for a standard "about the government" section on every municipal website that summarizes the local government structure and operating features with links its home rule charter or legislative special act(s)/special act charter or even related General Laws, as well as bylaws and city ordinances. The Department of Housing and Community Development's (DHCD) charter repository should upgrade to an online system with a charter commission process tool and an updated online list with links of each Massachusetts municipality's form of government and method of implementation (HRC, special act, etc.). Finally, DHCD and the state attorney general's Municipal Law Unit (who reviews charters) must have available and knowledgeable professionals to assist municipalities with the process without the cost of private consultants to eliminate any financial influence with the charter process.

Sharon Pinardi McCauley lives in the Town of Natick and formerly lived in the City of Peabody.

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