Local Government Process
Cities and towns differ in their form of government. The information below is a general guide; visit www.mma.org/city-and-town-websites to find your city’s or town’s website and information on the form of government. This will inform how you can best approach your effort at a local level.
Select boards (sometimes called Boards of Selectmen) are elected by town residents and are the principal officers of the town. Their duties range from overseeing all town work (small town) to only dealing with administrative policies (larger towns). The board is made up of three to five members.
A town meeting is held on an annual basis to discuss issues that impact the running of the town. Issues such as pay, election of town officials, budgets, and local policy matters are discussed and brought to a vote at town meetings. Some towns have an open meeting where all residents of the town may attend and vote. Other towns have representative town meetings, where residents elected as town meeting members are the only people who can vote.
Most annual town meetings are held in the spring and many have a special town meeting in the fall. Most town websites include a schedule of town meetings. Elections of town officials are usually held on a different day than the annual meeting.
A “warrant” is a document that announces the time, place, and the business to be discussed at the town meeting. By law, the warrant must be issued at least seven days before the town meeting. The bylaws of the town will specify the way the warrant will be announced – posted, newspaper, mailed, etc. A copy should be available on the town’s website (or from the town clerk).
A city has a population with over 12,000 residents that has adopted a city charter. City charters vary from city to city. There are 53 cities in Massachusetts (and 298 towns).
Some cities have an elected mayor and others have a hired city manager. Mayors’ responsibilities vary from city to city. Some mayors are full-time working administrators with extensive powers, while others have little more authority than other city councilors.
The city council (or “board of aldermen” in some cities) is the legislative branch of the city government. The city council can only make changes authorized by the legislature or in its charter. A city council can range from seven to twenty or more members. Most cities (2/3) have councils made up of four or five members elected at large, along with other council members who are elected to represent each ward or district in the city.