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Civics Sunday - Part III: Selectmen

by The Publishers
March 3, 2019

Continuing our Civics Sunday series, we begin by reminding you, our reader, that our intent is to provide brief descriptions of local boards, elected positions, or committees to prepare voters for the next Local Election on May 21, 2019, as well as to remind Holliston of our Annual Town Meeting on May 6, 2019.

Continuing our Civics Sunday series, we begin by reminding you, our reader, that our intent is to provide brief descriptions of local boards, elected positions, or committees to prepare voters for the next Local Election on May 21, 2019, as well as to remind Holliston of our Annual Town Meeting on May 6, 2019.

This week’s column briefly describes the Board of Selectmen; we will vote for one select person this spring.   We will also vote for the Town Clerk and the Moderator, both described last week.  In case you missed it, follow this link to last week’s article: Part II link.

History of the Board of Selectmen

Nearly 400 years of tradition precedes the present Board of Selectmen. In the early history of the Commonwealth, towns had no regularly elected town officials.  During town meetings, prominent citizens were “selected” to carry on the business of the town between meetings.  As towns grew, they required more supervision, so colonists began to elect between 3-9 “selectmen,” who adhered to the British concept of a council that would serve a fixed term.

In 1633, Dorchester was the first New England town to organize a local government and choose 12 men as selectmen.  Other Massachusetts towns followed.  From town to town, duties of the selectmen varied.  Most selectmen supported and enforced the votes of the town meeting, as well as completing other specific administrative areas of town government.

In the late 1700’s, the MA General Court passed laws that delineated the role of the selectmen: finance, care of the poor, schools, admission of new residents to town, roads and public works, land regulation, local defense, and the appointment of other unelected town officials.  While towns remained small, the board of selectmen conducted most executive business of the town.   As Massachusetts and its towns grew, selectmen were given greater responsibilities.  New boards and elected officials were given specialized functions not controlled by the selectmen.  In this way, no single executive had control of all executive branch agencies. 

Historically, the Board of Selectmen, a community’s senior administrative body, serves as the town’s “titular chief executive.”  The Constitution of the Commonwealth and statutes enacted over the years recognize this status. Local government has changed dramatically since colonial times, but Selectmen are still viewed as leaders of an increasingly complex enterprise.

The Board of Selectmen Today

Holliston’s Legislative body is Town Meeting and the Executive Body is the Board of Selectmen and the Town Administrator, who is appointed by the Selectmen yearly.  One of three Selectmen is elected annually for overlapping three-year terms.

Our Board of Selectmen operates as a collective decision-making body. The chair of the board of selectmen is chosen by the Selectmen themselves. Powers of the Selectmen are granted under the Massachusetts General Laws (MGL). Selectmen have general supervision of all matters not assigned by the MGL or the Town By-laws to other Town officers, boards, committees or commissions.

Responsibilities:

Generally, Boards of Selectmen have at least 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.

While the specific role of Selectmen is broad, it varies from town to town. Among responsibilities of the Holliston Board of Selectmen are the following:

Police Department.  The direction of the police department, the appointment of a chief of police and other such officers as the Board considers necessary.

Fire Department.  The direction of the fire department, the appointment of a chief of the fire department, and such other officers and firemen as the Board considers necessary. 

Power to Investigate.  The investigation of conduct and operation of any town department. The BoS may summon witnesses to testify and produce records concerning any town office or department.

Property.  The control over all town-owned real and personal property (except that under another board or department) and land acquired by the town through foreclosure of tax titles.

Licensing Authority.  Issuance of permits and licenses for a variety of purposes except where otherwise provided by law or the zoning by-laws.

Power to Set Fees.  Determination of fees or fee schedules for all licenses and permits granted by the town (unless provided by law or By-laws.

Town Counsel.  Employment of an attorney to act as Town Counsel

Legal Claims.  Action as agents of the town to institute and prosecute legal actions in the name of the town; defense of legal actions against the town (in all matters with no other provision).

Low Value Personal Property.  Authorization of a board or department officer to sell any departmental personal property or material not required by this department and not over $400.

Highway Surveyors.  The Selectmen are elected Highway Surveyors simultaneously with election as Selectmen; therefore, they have control of ordinary repair of public ways within the town and are responsible for the removal of snow and other obstructions on roadways. 

Boards, Committees, and Commissions Appointed by Selectmen

All appointments made by the Board of Selectmen or other elected boards are made by majority vote in a regular meeting. (In the case of appointments to an elected board it is a joint appointment with the Selectmen and the remaining members of the board to which the appointment is to be made.)      

There are nearly 30 committees, commissions, and boards -- literally A (Agricultural  Commission) to Z (Zoning Board of Appeals). A complete listing can be found here ->  https://www.townofholliston.us/boards  These committees, commissions, and boards require approximately 150 volunteers to adequately fill all the authorized seats.

The Board of Selectmen maintains a list of volunteers including volunteers’ areas of interest or expertise. Citizens can be added to this list by filing an application form (found at the back of the town report) or by sending a letter of interest to the Board of Selectmen requesting an appointment when a vacancy occurs. The Board of Selectmen will generally meet with applicants to discuss their interests. The Board of Selectmen or appointing Board makes written notification of an appointment.

Useful Qualifications:

An effective Selectman has an excellent working knowledge of the laws and by-laws that comprise the board’s authority.  The following resource materials are also under the Selectman’s purview: 

  • The Town’s zoning by-laws

  • The Massachusetts open meeting, public records, and conflict-of-interest laws

  • 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 Board of Selectmen has adopted

  • Current year’s budget

  • Most recent town report

Selectmen will have a familiarity with the services offered by the Massachusetts Municipal Assoc., the MA Dept. of Revenue, and the MA Dept. of Housing and Community Development.

The Leadership Role

“Leadership is the most important—yet least understood—role of a Selectman.”  Leadership of a Selectman is both individual as well as by team. 

What does a good leader do?  An effective leader takes a visible role:

  • Making decisions based on facts, data and logic;

  • Leading by example, not by words, power or manipulation;

  • Searching for the root of a problem; and

  • Distinguishing between the right to take action and the wisdom not to.

Since the Selectman is both an individual leader and a team leader, this person will interact well with other board members and understand that these colleagues will be formulating plans of their own.  Listening is a critical skill. 

Next week Civics Sunday will bring you the Finance Committee. 

Resources:

Handbook for Massachusetts Selectmen

Holliston Board of Selectmen Webpage

Town of Holliston By-laws

 

 

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Comments (5)

Some towns have renamed the Board of Selectmen to the Select Board. The members are Selectwoman or Selectman. This seems to keep the history in an updated form.

- Henry Dellicker | 3/7/19 10:08 AM

Thanks, Michelle. Good to know. I have no idea of the legalities behind a name; I just think it shouldn't have a gender attached to it. It's outdated, inaccurate and biased. That was my point.

- Erica Plunkett | 3/6/19 9:30 AM

Erica, Town Council is a form of government in which the Council is elected. The Council then appoints a Town Manager. The Council and Manager together govern the town. There is no Town Meeting. If you just want a name change, "Select Board" might be a better choice.

- Michelle Zeamer | 3/4/19 8:55 AM

This is terrific series. Thank you. Just putting it out there that I believe the term Board of Selectmen is antiquated. Language matters and I'd like to see the name changed. Perhaps Town Council?

- Erica Plunkett | 3/3/19 9:49 AM

Very well done. I hope that many towns people read this. Thank you.

- Henry Dellicker | 3/3/19 9:21 AM

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