HARWICH — There is a trend in Massachusetts to change the title of executive boards in municipalities to more gender neutral terminology. Selectmen were asked to follow that trend on Monday night.
Resident Amy Harris requested selectmen change the title of the executive board from “board of selectmen” to “select board.” She said 80 towns in the commonwealth have made the adjustment, including Brewster, Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown.
Harris said she has been encouraging more people to participate in government and said a more gender-neutral atmosphere might get more people to participate.
The town of Dorchester was the first New England town to organize a local government. It was incorporated in 1630 and in 1633 established a 12-member “board of selectmen.” At the time Dorchester reached as far south as Foxborough and has since been reduced in size and is now a section of Boston. But the organization of that local government in 1633 established the format for governing throughout New England.
Board of Selectmen Chair Julie Kavanagh said she thought the board had addressed this request a year or two ago. Finance Committee Chairman Dana DeCosta, a former selectman, also said there were discussions in the 1990s about changing the title. DeCosta said the women serving on the board at the time, Shirley Gomes and Sandra Hall, supported the term selectman. He said the town should consider formation of a committee to study the suggestion and pointed out the body given power through state statutes is the board of selectmen.
Selectman Donald Howell noted there are only a couple of days before the annual town meeting warrant deadline and such a change would have to go to town meeting. He concurred with DeCosta that it would be wise to first develop a committee to look at the question. Howell said such a change would require a lot of additional changes in the town's home rule charter.
“It's not a term of art, it's an actual position,” Howell said. “We'll have to look at its impact.”
Monomoy Regional School Committee member Donna Richardson said language is the most powerful tool we have as humans and pointed out language has been used to exclude many people.
“We can do better,” she said. “Inclusive language will bring everyone into the group.”
DeCosta said he would prefer the term “policy board.” Selectman Ed McManus responded the “policy board” is town meeting and the selectmen are the executive board. McManus said agreed the changes must be workable. “It's not something we should do off the cuff,” he said.
“I don't know many men who want to be called women or women who want to be called men,” resident Judith Winters said.
Winters said she was driving by the polls on election day with her grandson who read the campaign signs for selectman and asked if only men could run for the position. For consistency sake, select board makes more sense, she said.
Last month the Chatham Board of Selectmen discussed a name change and voted unanimously to retain the selectmen title. Brewster made the change in 2017.
Noting language in Massachusetts General Law that extends authority to the board of selectmen, McManus suggested officials seek a legal opinion from the Attorney General on the impacts of such a change.
Selectman Michael MacAskill said state government might not recognize the title select board. He said the board could agree to be called that, but they would still have to officially be the board of selectmen.
Howell recommended the request be referred to the town's bylaw/charter review committee for study.