Cities and Towns

Massachusetts Government: Cities and Towns

Massachusetts has 50 cities, and 301 towns.

All Massachusetts cities are governed by mayors and city councils. By state law, to be designated a city, a place must have at least 12,000 residents. Towns are governed by selectmen, who are usually elected to either one- to three-year terms. Town meetings—a carryover from the colonial period, when every taxpayer had an equal voice in town government—still take place when every voter in town may participate. Towns with more than 6,000 inhabitants may hold representative town meetings with town meeting members elected by voters to represent specific geographic areas.

What are the rights of the 351 cities and towns?

In 1966, the Home Rule Act granted cities and towns the right to self-government and to adopt and amend their own rules of governing called charters. The Massachusetts legislature may not pass laws affecting only one city or town unless requested to do so by that community or by the governor and a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature. There is no unincorporated land. This means all land is contained in one of the 351 cities and towns. Massachusetts General Laws still govern most town and city functions. Local bylaws cannot be in conflict with state laws.

How is a city governed? There are several variations.

One plan has a mayor and city council or a board of aldermen. The mayor is the city’s chief executive officer who appoints and removes boards, commissions and department heads. The mayor may be full-time with extensive powers. Another plan calls for city councils to be elected from electoral districts called wards. The councilors choose a mayor from one of their members and appoint a city manager, who is the chief executive officer and oversees the day-to-day business of the city. In some cities, the mayor may have little or no more power than any other city councilor.

How is a town governed?

The annual Town Meeting makes rules, adopts budgets, adopts bylaws and does a town’s business. An open Town Meeting allows all registered voters in that town to attend, speak and vote. A representative Town Meeting allows only representatives elected by the voters to vote, although all registered voters may attend. The agenda is called a warrant, and the elected town moderator conducts the Town Meeting. An elected board of selectmen carries out the decisions of Town Meeting and sets some town policies.  The board of selectmen may employ town administrators, including a town manager, to oversee the day-to-day business of the town. The town charter sets up the government of the town and may be changed.

Find information about specific cities and towns, including websites, here.