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Case Studies

Should ‘Board Of Selectmen’ Title Be Changed?

A Historic Title Raises Questions

In the state of Massachusetts, many towns are questioning the future of a local position with historic ties. Around 1/3 of the communities of Massachusetts have made the switch from ‘Selectmen’ to a more inclusive title. Amherst, Harvard, and Brookline are a few of the long-standing towns that are making the transition. As neighboring communities develop plans for using ‘Select Board’ and ‘Board of Select People’, towns such as Plymouth grapple with the added costs and historic relationship to the term. In a meeting in Ashland, Massachusetts, the Board of Selectmen also debated changing the name. The Board decided to run a survey on Involved to get feedback from residents. The question was shared through the Board’s email list, social media, and to residents already on Involved.

Disclaimer: These results are not statistically significant due to the selective ability to respond and share. However, the quantity of responses and comments provide insight into overall sentiment, top concerns, and interest in this proposal.

5% Of Ashland Chimes In

With 843 total responses to the Board’s survey, the results told a story.

22% of respondents thought that this was an important issue and the board should strongly consider changing the name. “Although I indicated this is not urgent, if it is creating a barrier to women feeling included in town government, it really should be changed.”

36% of people agreed that this issue is not very important, but a change should be made if the Board decides to take action.

Just 56 people, 7% of respondents, felt that the issue is important and that the name should not change.

The final 35% of respondents took a different stance: there are more important things to be working on, but if the Board decides to take this up it should not change its name.

Geographic results
Survey results data

“It may seem like a small thing…”

…but the language we use is important,” one Ashland resident wrote in a reply to the Board’s survey. “Using gendered language sends a signal that government is for men,” they continued. Yet many in Ashland pushed back and called for focus on other town issues, such as new business, school funding, and street repair. “I see no need to change the name. The term is a generic term and not meant to be gender specific,” wrote another resident. Some in objection pointed to the only woman on the board, Yolanda Greaves, “advocating to keep it the same.”

Priorities In Perspective

Within 48 hours, the Board had a rich understanding of the community’s perspective through quantitative, qualitative, and geographic representation. From this, the Board was able to conclude that the issue could be tabled: most people didn’t find it particularly important. “The survey not only gave us an idea of what people would like to do (change the name), but also where it ranked on the priority list (pretty low),” Town Manager Michael Herbert confirmed. Perhaps the future will bring change to the title that dates back to John Hancock and John Adams. But in the town of Ashland, the ‘Selectmen’ name remains.

Caleb McDermott