The town fathers have decided to wait a while before considering whether to change their name from the board of selectmen to something more inclusive.
The brief discussion about whether to change to a more gender-neutral name for the town’s governing body—such as “select board”—came up at last week’s selectmen’s meeting.
The Town of Bourne is also discussing such a name change and Falmouth made the leap last year.
In 2020, the Massachusetts Selectmen’s Association—which represents 294 municipalities—changed its name to the Massachusetts Select Board Association, and more than 90 towns in the commonwealth have also modernized their moniker, according to published reports.
Selectman David J. Sampson said many more towns in the commonwealth are also considering an update, but he questioned whether Sandwich might then have to consider changing all its gender-specific titles—such as “chairman.”
“How many pronouns are we discussing?” Mr. Sampson asked.
Selectman Robert J. George suggested the town “keep it like it is. It’s not hurting anybody.”
But at least one member of the public disagreed.
“Finally, you are going to enter this century and change the name to the Select Board, I hope, like the rest of the world,” wrote Sandwich resident Kaethe Maguire, who is a history buff and has served as the president of the Friends of Sandwich Town Archives for many years.
“Even backward western Massachusetts used ‘Select Board’ about 30 years ago,” Ms. Maguire added in an email to the selectmen.
But former Sandwich selectman Susan James—in an email to her former colleagues—argued that for historic purposes, the “board of selectmen” should stay.
“I understand that the name “selectmen” has a connotation today that it excludes women. However, the name goes back to the beginning of political action in this country and, as it is a historical precedent along with open Town Meeting, I think it should remain as it is,” Ms. James wrote.
“I have lived in Sandwich since 1978 and over that time period from then to now there have been quite a few talented women on the Board.... I don’t ever remember hearing that, because it is a Board of Selectmen, it inhibits women from running for office; nor have I heard that the name inhibited anyone from providing excellent service to the Town,” she wrote.
Selectman Shane T. Hoctor argued in favor of a new handle.
“I see both sides. I have not hit my head on a glass ceiling,” Mr. Hoctor said. “My personal point of view has changed since the birth of my daughter. Let’s make it inclusive for all.”
Michael J. Miller, chairman of the selectmen, said he believes it’s a matter for the charter review committee when it gets up and running in the coming months.
The charter review committee process will allow the public to weigh in and the whole matter can be debated before it gets to the floor of a future Town Meeting, Mr. Miller said.
“If the public has a big enough stake in this, they should make it known,” he said.
Members of Falmouth’s charter review committee, when it was considering the name change, said the term “selectmen” dates back to a time when churches ran the towns.
Deacons or other church officials were “selected” to operate the towns. The term stuck because officials later became “selected” by voters, the Falmouth committee members said.
The change in Falmouth was a multi-step process. The recommendation to do so came from the Charter Review Committee in 2019.
The change went before Falmouth Town Meeting in November 2019. The proposal was to change “Board of Selectmen” to “Select Board” and “Selectman” to “Select Board member”. Article 24 also changed “Watchman of the Warrant” to “Watcher of the Warrant,” and replaced the line “his designee” with “a person designated by the Moderator.”
The article also made several non-gender related changes (such as replacing the terms committee, council and board with “governmental body” or “governmental bodies,” the term “Master Plan” with “Local Comprehensive Plan,” and “Long Range Plan” with “Strategic Plan.”
It passed on the blanket vote, so there was no discussion at Town Meeting on the change.
After the Town Meeting vote, it went to the voters as a ballot question in May 2020. This was one of 10 charter changes approved at the ballot. The question passed by a vote of 4,277 to 1,191. This vote formalized the name change in the Falmouth Town Charter.
If Sandwich does change the name of its governing body, it would have to be approved by Town Meeting and the state Legislature, according to Town Attorney John W. Giorgio.
The selectmen—or the select people—would also have to vote on the matter.