Making Democracy Work

Commonwealth and County

The basis for our state and local government is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Falmouth is part of Barnstable County, which was established in 1685

Falmouth and the Commonwealth

The basis for our state and local government is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which was adopted in 1780 and served as a model for the U. S. Constitution. The state legislature, known formally as the Great and General Court, creates and enforces two types of law: General Laws and Special Acts. The General Laws require all towns to provide certain essential services such as education, tax assessment and collection, road maintenance, health administration, and fire and police protection.

However, the state reserves to itself several important functions which give it considerable control over cities and towns. It can, for example, regulate elections, borrow money, redraw municipal boundaries, take town land by eminent domain, establish regional authorities, and, of course, levy taxes on its citizens. Public education, though funded largely at the local level, is subject to regulation by the state.

Any citizen of the Commonwealth has the right to introduce proposed legislation by filing a bill with a state representative or senator. In addition, citizens may seek to introduce laws or constitutional amendments through statewide initiative petition. If the legislature fails to act upon such a petition, the question can be taken directly to the voters in a referendum. Falmouth is represented in the legislature by one senator and two representatives

County Government

Barnstable County

Barnstable County seal

was established in 1685. It consists of the fifteen towns that make up Cape Cod, from Bourne to Provincetown. The county has 560 miles of coast line. It covers 396 square miles of land and 16 square miles of water. In 2009 the estimated population was 221,151. The county offices are in Courthouse complex on Route 6A in the Barnstable village. The Annual Report is available in printed form at the above offices and on the web and contains information on current projects throughout Cape Cod that are sponsored by the County.

Counties have been part of Massachusetts's government since colonial times, in the beginning primarily as judicial bodies. Other responsibilities have been added over time: the administration of the penal system, supervision of certain health facilities, highway activities, agriculture, registration of deeds and various other activities assigned by the state legislature. Since the state constitution contains no specific provision for counties, their existence and authority depend upon the will of the state legislature; those that still exist serve essentially as administrative subdivisions of state government. Barnstable County passed a special charter to become a regional government.

In 1988 the Barnstable County Home Rule Act guaranteed certain rights of home rule, and increased citizen participation in county government. Three county commissioners elected to four-year staggered terms serve as the executive branch of county government. There is also a county legislative body, the Assembly of Delegates, with power to enact ordinances. Each town elects one delegate to serve a two-year term. Delegates have weighted votes reflecting the size of their towns.

The Cape Cod Commission was created in 1990. It is a regional planning agency with regulatory power for the county and consists of 19 members; 15 appointed by the Boards of Selectmen of the individual towns. Three are appointed by the County Commissioners; one of these must be a County Commissioner, one a Native American and one a minority member. The Governor appoints one minority member whose term is coterminous with the Governor. The other members have three-year terms except for the County Commissioner who is chosen annually.

The Act was a response to widespread and growing concern about the preservation of Cape Cod's environment. It prescribed four procedures for the Cape Cod Commission to achieve its planning and regulatory goals:

  • Creation of a Regional Policy Plan to guide development throughout the county

  • Local Comprehensive Plans developed by each town for appropriate implementation of the Regional Policy Plan

  • Designation of Districts of Critical Planning Concern to protect significant natural and cultural resources

  • Identification of Developments of Regional Impact that will affect more than one town and trigger Commission hearing.

County revenues are obtained from a variety of sources. Among them are fees for services, payments and grants from the state including courthouse rental fees and jail reimbursements, excise taxes on real estate sales and assessments against the towns. Projected revenues for Fiscal Year 2011 totaled $23,311,844. The County Tax Assessment was expected to remain at its current level of $2,760,309. The Cape Cod Environmental Protection Fund Tax (for the Cape Cod Commission) was estimated at $2.887,247.

Expenditures are divided among seven major programs. For Fiscal Year 2011 the breakdown is: 5% for Public Safety including the Fire-Rescue Training Academy; 20% for Planning and Development including assistance to town planning departments; 17% for Health and Human Services; 32% for County Services including the county dredge, the cooperative extension programs and the Cape Light Compact for energy efficiency; 8% for Shared Costs (retirement, insurance); 1% for Water Quality Initiative; 1% for Debt Service; and 15% for General Government. The County issues an annual report that details how each town has benefited from the county's various services in the previous year.


Although no courts are operated by Barnstable County, the County complex houses divisions of the state District Court, Superior Court and Probate and Family Court. These courts are all departments of the Massachusetts Trial Court. Divisions of District Court hold sessions in Falmouth and Orleans.

The Superior Court hears the more serious felony cases and civil cases where the amount at issue is in excess of $25,000. Only the Superior Court can conduct trials with the traditional jury of twelve.

Those charged with traffic offenses, misdemeanors, or lesser felonies go before the District Court, which also conducts probable cause hearings in more serious cases to determine whether the evidence is sufficient to send the case to Superior Court. On the civil side, the District Court is responsible for small claims, as well as other civil cases where trial by jury is not desired or not available. District Court jury trials in criminal or small claims matters come before a jury of six.

The Probate and Family Court processes the probate of wills and deals with matters such as divorce, custody, adoption, and contempt stemming from failure to comply with support orders or other orders of the court. Requests for restraint in domestic violence cases as well as certain other types of cases can come before this court or the District Court.

The Land Court, which is also a department of the state Trial Court, has an office in Barnstable but the court itself sits in Boston. It has jurisdiction over most real property matters and disputes. Zoning and mortgage foreclosure actions may come before the Land Court or other courts. The Supreme Judicial Court, which is the state's highest court, and the Appeals Court, which is a state intermediate appellate court, also hold sessions in Boston.

The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, and the federal Bankruptcy Court are also located in Boston. However, an attorney, who serves as Magistrate-Judge of the District Court, conducts certain federal criminal proceedings on the Cape.

Jurors for both state and federal courts are selected from town census lists provided by town officials to the state Office of the Jury Commissioner. State trial jurors serve either one day or one trial. Federal trial jurors are on call for four weeks.

The District Attorney for the Cape and Islands District is an elected official with offices in the Barnstable County complex. The District Attorney is responsible for prosecuting all criminal cases, for presenting evidence before the grand jury, and for defending civil tort cases. In addition, the office administers the victim/witness assistance program. Both the District Court and Superior Court have probation offices in Barnstable.