AskDefine | Define selectman

Dictionary Definition

selectman n : an elected member of a board of officials who run New England towns

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Extensive Definition

The Board of Selectmen is commonly the executive arm of town governments in the New England region of the United States. The board typically consists of three or five members, with or without staggered terms.see New England town


In most New England towns, the adult voting population gathers annually in a town meeting 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. 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 term "selectman" is gender neutral. Some towns and journalist style manuals, in an example of political correctness that confuses sexual and grammatical gender, use terms not defined in state statutes such as "Selectwoman," "Selectperson," and "Select Board." In all states the statutes use masculine forms such as Selectmen, Board of Selectmen, or First Selectman and these are the proper terms to use -- neutral in regards to the sex of the office holder(s), but consistent with the grammatical gender used in statutes.


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. Selectmen is almost always a part-time position that pays only a token salary.
The basic function consists of calling town meeting, 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, but retains the historic name.
In some places, such as Connecticut, the head of the Board of Selectmen is the First Selectman, 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 mayors. In Massachusetts, the presiding selectman is usually called the chairman and is chosen annually by his or her fellow selectmen.

Further reading

  • 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)

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

alderman, archon, bailie, burghermaster, burgomaster, cabinet member, cabinet minister, chancellor, city councilman, city father, city manager, commissar, commissioner, councillor, councilman, councilwoman, county commissioner, county supervisor, elder, headman, induna, legislator, lord mayor, magistrate, maire, mayor, minister, minister of state, portreeve, reeve, secretary, secretary of state, supervisor, syndic, undersecretary, warden
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