The board of selectmen
is commonly the executive arm of the government of New England town
The New England town is the basic unit of local government in each of the six New England states. Without a direct counterpart in most other U.S. states, New England towns are conceptually similar to civil townships in other states, but are incorporated, possessing powers like cities in other...
s in the United States. The board typically consists of three or five members, with or without staggered terms.
In most New England towns, the adult voting population gathered annually in a town meeting
A town meeting is a form of direct democratic rule, used primarily in portions of the United States since the 17th century, in which most or all the members of a community come together to legislate policy and budgets for local government....
to act as the local legislature, approving budgets and laws. Day-to-day operations were originally left to individual oversight, but when towns became too large for individuals to handle such work loads, they would elect an executive board of, literally, select(ed) men to run things for them.
These men had charge of the day-to-day operations; selectmen were important in legislating policies central to a community's police force, highway supervisors, poundkeepers, field drivers, and other officials. However, the larger towns grew, the more power would be distributed among other elected boards, such as fire wardens and police departments. For example, population increases led to the need for actual police departments, of which selectmen typically became the commissioners
Commissioner is a senior rank used in many police forces and may be rendered Police Commissioner or Commissioner of Police. In some organizations, the commissioner is a political appointee, and may or may not actually be a professional police officer. In these circumstances, there is often a...
. The advent of tarred roads and automobile traffic led to a need for full-time highway maintainers and plowmen, leaving selectmen to serve as Supervisors of Streets and Ways.
The function of the board of selectmen differs from state to state, and can differ within a given state depending on the type of governance under which a town operates. Selectman is almost always a part-time position that pays only a token or no salary.
The basic function consists of calling town meetings, calling elections, appointing employees, setting certain fees, overseeing certain volunteer and appointed bodies, and creating basic regulations.
In larger towns, most of the selectmen's traditional powers are entrusted to a full-time town administrator or town manager. In some towns, the board of selectmen acts more like a city council
A city council or town council is the legislative body that governs a city, town, municipality or local government area.-Australia & NZ:Because of the differences in legislation between the States, the exact definition of a City Council varies...
, but retains the historic name.
In some places, such as Connecticut, the head of the board of selectmen is the first selectman
The first selectman is the head of the board of selectmen in some New England towns....
, who historically has served as the chief administrative officer of the town and may be elected separately from the rest of the board. Sometimes this is a part-time position, with larger towns hiring a full-time town administrator, who answers to the first selectman. In some towns and cities, the first selectman exercises the powers typically associated with mayor
In many countries, a Mayor is the highest ranking officer in the municipal government of a town or a large urban city....
s. In Massachusetts, the presiding selectman is usually called the chairman and is chosen annually by his or her fellow selectmen.
- Alexis de Tocqueville (1835, 1840), Democracy in America: the Henry Reeve text as revised by Francis Bowen, now further corrected and edited with introduction, editorial notes, and bibliography by Phillips Bradley, (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1945), Chapter V: Spirit of the townships of New England.
- J.A. Fairlee, Local government in counties, towns, and villages, (The Century Co., New York, 1906), Chap. 8 (online version)
- R.E. Murphy, "Town Structure and Urban Concepts in New England", The Professional Geographer 16, 1 (1964).
- J.S. Garland, New England town law : a digest of statutes and decisions concerning towns and town officers, (Boston, Mass., 1906), pp. 1–83. (online version)
- A. Green, New England's gift to the nation—the township.: An oration, (Angell, Burlingame & Co., Providence, 1875) (online version)
- J. Parker, The origin, organization, and influence of the towns of New England : a paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society, December 14, 1865, (Cambridge, 1867) (online version)
- S. Whiting, The Connecticut town-officer, Part I: The powers and duties of towns, as set forth in the statutes of Connecticut, which are recited, (Danbury, 1814), pp. 7–97 (online version)