The board of selectmen is 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. The position of selectman/select board member is steeped in nearly 400 years of tradition. Though they earn only a small stipend, if anything, for their work on behalf of their hometowns, selectmen have played significant roles over the years in shaping the future of their communities. They are looked to – by citizens and local government employees alike – for leadership and integrity, particularly in difficult times. Local government has changed dramatically since colonial times, but selectmen continue to be seen as the leaders of an increasingly complex enterprise.
The office of selectman was not imported from England but evolved here. Early in the history of the Commonwealth, town meetings would periodically “select” prominent citizens to perform the business of the town between town meetings. In 1633, Dorchester (now part of Boston) was the first New England town to organize a local government, choosing 12 men as selectmen. Other Massachusetts towns quickly adopted this unique form of government.
Colonial laws in Massachusetts gave selectmen 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. In colonial times, most “executive” business of towns was conducted by the board of selectmen. As Massachusetts grew and the activities of towns became increasingly sophisticated, selectmen were assigned greater responsibilities and authority while new, independent elected officers and boards were entrusted with specialized functions.
A board of selectmen (or select board) operates as a collective decision-making body. The legal authority of selectmen is limited to actions taken by the board at a legally called, posted meeting with a majority of the board present. If a board member wants to accomplish specific objectives, he or she must find a way to work with the other members of the board and with other boards in town.
While selectmen are the principal administrative officers of the town, other boards, including the school committee, the planning board, and the board of health, may wield at least as much authority over certain aspects of town government.
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
(from the Massachusetts Municipal Association)