Making Democracy Work

Town Government

Falmouth has a Selectman/Representative Town Meeting form of government with a Town Manager

When Falmouth was incorporated in 1686, a Selectmen/town meeting form of government was adopted and, with two major exceptions, is basically the governmental structure that we still have today. The first change came in 1936 when the town voted to adopt a representative town meeting composed of no more than 252 representatives elected by precinct. Representative town meeting remains the foundation of our town government. The second change came in 1990 when the town voted to adopt a new home rule charter, replacing the full-time board of three Selectmen with a part-time board of five members operating through a full-time professional Administrator. In 2007 this position was changed to Town Manager.

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Town Government is still characterized by many committees that have both policy and regulatory authority. These committees require extensive citizen participation and are time consuming. The committees must perform a balancing act between democratic process and efficient product. The state's Open Meeting Law requires that public meetings are transparent and accessible. The League's Observer Corps monitors the application of this law as well as the general performance of various town committees.

Full copies of the Town Charter are available on the Town's website, at Town Hall and the Library. Citizens interested in active participation in town government should become familiar with this important document.

To see an organizational chart for the Town of Falmouth, click here. The web site for Falmouth is www.falmouthmass.us. Key elements of the way Falmouth is governed are described below.

Registration and Voting

Government in Falmouth starts at the ballot box. The successful functioning of the town depends ultimately upon citizen interest and participation at the polls. It is extraordinarily easy to register to vote in Falmouth, as it is throughout Massachusetts. Any U.S. citizen who lives in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and will be 18 or older on Election Day may register to vote. Residents register and vote in their town. A resident may register at the office of the Town Clerk in Town Hall. No minimum residency is required. In case of disability, registration can be done at home upon written request; in an emergency, the Town Clerk can accept registration. A resident may register in person by visiting the Town Clerk's Office in Town Hall and completing a voter registration form. Or he may obtain a mail-in registration form from the lobby of Town Hall, the main branch of the Falmouth Public Library, any United States Post Office, or by calling the State Elections Division at (800)-462-VOTE. He may also register when applying for or renewing his driver's license at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

A resident who has registered to vote by mail after January 1, 2003 will be asked for a valid form of identification before voting.

A resident who has moved within the Town of Falmouth will need to notify the Town Clerk's Office of his new address in writing. A voter registered in another town or state who moves to Falmouth will need to register again. Voters must register 20 days before all primaries and elections to be eligible to vote in that primary or election.

A resident may register as un-enrolled or as a Democrat, a Republican, or a member of any other party which may qualify under state law. The party designation may be changed at any time, but prior to an election a change in party affiliation must be made within the time allowed to register to vote. A voter who changes his or her address must notify the Town Clerk's office.

There are nine precincts in Falmouth, each with its own polling place. The precinct boundaries are set by the Board of Selectmen, who are charged with reviewing the voting lists every five years and establishing precincts of manageable and approximately equal size. Current precinct information is on the Town Clerk's webpage.

The polls are usually open from 7 A.M. until 8 P.M. on Election Day but the hours may be changed by the Board of Registrars. Voters who are unable to vote on Election Day may apply for an Absentee Ballot. State law limits the availability of absentee ballots to three circumstances only:

  • If the voter will be absent from Falmouth on Election Day
  • If the voter has a physical disability that prevents voting at a polling place
  • If a voter cannot vote due to religious beliefs Absentee ballots are not available for mere convenience. Applications for absentee ballots are available by request from the Town Clerk's Office. They can also be downloaded from the Town web site at Application. Applications may be submitted in person or by mail. The voter or a family member may submit an application. The deadline for applying for an absentee ballot is noon of the day before the election.

The Town Clerk makes regulations governing the conduct of the election. He is responsible for the election, counting of the vote, and deciding any question pertaining to election law which may come up on Election Day, except for voter qualification which is decided by the full Board of Registrars. The Board consists of three voters appointed by the Board of Selectmen plus the Town Clerk. Each polling place is under the supervision of an election warden, and there are several other workers who usually work from the time the polls open until the polls close. The election workers are appointed by the Selectmen and must be equally divided between the Republican and Democratic parties.

Elections

General Elections are held the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even numbered years. National, state, and county officials are elected at this time. There are two-year terms for State Senator, State Representative, Governor's Counselor, and Congressman. There are four-year terms for President and Vice President of the United States and County Commissioner. In non-presidential years, elections are held for the following offices with four-year terms: Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, State Treasurer, State Auditor, and District Attorney. There are six-year terms for U.S. Senator, County Treasurer, Sheriff, Register of Deeds and Register of Probate of Barnstable County. Questions of state-wide concern or amendments to the State Constitution may also appear on the ballot in a general election.

Primary Elections permit members of a political party to choose their candidates for a coming general election. In Massachusetts all parties hold primaries on the same day. State primaries are held every two years in mid-September, on the seventh Tuesday before the general election. The presidential primary is the Tuesday after the first Monday in March. In a primary there is a separate ballot for each party. A voter registered with one of the state-recognized parties must vote in that party's primary and may not vote in the primary of another party. Unenrolled voters who vote in a primary remain unenrolled after that primary.

Members of the Falmouth Democratic and Republican Town Committees are elected every four years in the presidential primary. There are thirty-five regular members on each committee; associate members are elected from time to time by the regular members. Although committee members may seek and hold office as individuals, the committees themselves act principally as the local arms of the state and national party organizations, and do not become involved in local issues or elections.

Town Elections are held annually on the second Tuesday in May. Only candidates for town-wide office and for Town Meeting member are elected, but referenda or questions of local policy may also be put on the ballot by Town Meeting or the Board of Selectmen. The Board of Selectman may also call a Special Town Election at any time during the year.

A Local Referendum may be held whenever enough Falmouth residents wish to challenge the action of a Town Meeting on a major question. The petition for referendum must be signed by at least five percent of the voters in each precinct within five days after the Town Meeting vote; the Selectman are then required to order a special election. A negative vote of 20 percent of the town's registered voters is needed to make the referendum count; if it does, the issue is decided on the same basis as the Town Meeting itself; i.e., simple majority in most cases, two-thirds majority for zoning, land taking or bonding.

There have been only five such referenda since representative town meeting was adopted in 1936. The last two were in 1971 when the voters overturned a Town Meeting vote to build a sewer with an outfall in Vineyard Sound, and in 1975 when a decision to buy Washburn's Island in Waquoit for conservation was rescinded.

A Recall of Elected Officials was made possible under the Town Charter. Any elected official, except Town Meeting members, may be removed under a procedure which is detailed in the Charter.

Candidates for any town elective office must be registered voters in Falmouth. Candidates for Town Meeting must run in the precinct in which they reside. A candidate must obtain nomination papers from the Town Clerk's office, obtain 50 valid signatures of registered Falmouth voters if seeking town-wide election, or 10 signatures of registered voters from the precinct if running for Town Meeting Member. To be counted, a signature must appear as it does on the voting list, complete with street address. Candidates must sign and return the papers to the Town Clerk at least 28 days before the election. Incumbents seeking re-election need only sign a blanket sheet in Town Hall.

State laws on campaign finance apply to local candidates except for those running for Town Meeting. A preliminary report is required eight days before town election and a second report must be filled within 30 days after the election. The Town Clerk provides the necessary forms. There is also a strong state conflict of interest law, which limits the extent to which a town employee can participate as a member of the committee in charge of his or her department. The law does not apply to Town Meeting Members and many town employees serve in that capacity.

Local campaigns in Falmouth are non-partisan. Candidates do not seek office under the banner of any political party nor do the parties become involved in any way.

There are many opportunities for voters to get to know the candidates. Those seeking town-wide office usually advertise in the local papers; some campaign door-to-door and some mail out campaign brochures. Candidates are introduced at precinct meetings held in late March in advance of Town Meeting. The League of Women Voters compiles background information on each candidate which is published in The Falmouth Enterprise, along with the candidates' answers to questions submitted by the League. Candidates Night is sponsored by the League. Precinct associations and other groups also sponsor candidate forums.

Most Falmouth residents of voting age were registered: in November 2009, there were 25,809 registered voters out of a total town population of about 30602. Many registered residents do not vote. There is greater turnout for presidential and state election than for town elections.

Town Meeting

Town Meeting is the legislative branch of town government. It adopts bylaws, approves all departmental budgets and capital expenditures, and recommends tax overrides and exclusions. It also votes on zoning proposals and land acquisition, acts on citizen petitions, creates ad hoc committees, and elects the Finance Committee.

Town Meeting currently has 243 elected members, equally divided among the precincts, plus the Moderator. There are 27 Town Meeting members in each of the 9 precincts. Members are elected for three-year staggered terms. Incumbents are rarely unseated and most Town Meeting members serve several terms.

There are two regular Town Meetings, both with the legal standing of Annual Town Meeting. One begins the first Monday in April and the other is in the fall. The meetings are held at night in the Lawrence School auditorium and usually last two to three nights. The major undertaking of the April meeting is approval of operating budgets and other expenditures for the new fiscal year which starts July 1, and adoption of referendum questions for the May election. However, the town must wait for budget figures from the State, so the tax rate is set in the fall.

A Special Town Meeting may be called at any time by vote of the Selectmen or petition of 200 voters. Special meetings are usually limited to very few warrant articles and normally take one night only. It has become a practice to include a Special Town meeting within the regular April meeting to deal with new financial questions of the current fiscal year.

The Warrant is the agenda of business to be transacted at Town Meeting. It consists of articles, each stating a proposal made by the Selectmen, department heads, town committees or Falmouth citizens. Deadlines for filing articles are set by the Selectmen, usually several months before the April Meeting or the fall Meeting and a few days or a week before a Special. Between the filing deadline and Town Meeting, the Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee and Planning Board consider the articles and make recommendations. The meetings of the different boards are advertised and open to the public and there is plenty of opportunity for Town Meeting members and citizens to become informed on the issues and to comment.

The Planning Board makes recommendations on all zoning proposals and also considers articles on land purchases, conservation and planning. The budget process includes special deadlines, mandates public hearings and requires recommendations to be made public well before Town Meeting starts. The Warrant and recommendations are printed in The Falmouth Enterprise. Copies are posted in every post office and may be picked up at Town Hall. A copy is sent to each Town Meeting member. Precinct meetings are held to discuss articles of town-wide or local interest, and at least one town-wide public meeting is sponsored by the Board of Selectmen.

The Moderator presides over every session of Town Meeting with exclusive authority over the conduct of the meeting. He may speak to an issue, but rarely does, and may vote, but only to break a tie. The Moderator makes several important appointments. He is elected for a three-year-term and is paid a modest amount ($1,500 in 2010).

Town Meeting in action is a major public event in Falmouth. All sessions are open and the auditorium is usually filled. In recent years the proceedings have been broadcast live on cable television. Newspaper coverage is thorough.

Spectators sit in the rear, separated from the Town Meeting by a row of empty seats. Two checkers, usually League volunteers, sit in the empty row to record attendance of members, who can be dropped for too many unexcused absences. Only Town Meeting members may vote, but any registered voter, resident, or taxpayer of Falmouth may speak on any issue. Anyone else who wishes to be heard needs a majority vote of Town Meeting. It is very rarely denied.

After some preliminaries, the Moderator reviews the Warrant, article by article. A Town Meeting member who wishes to discuss an article or disagrees with the printed recommendation will shout "Hold!" when that article is described. The articles which are not held, usually half to two-thirds of the total, are unanimously disposed of in a single "blanket" vote that enacts the recommendations printed in the warrant booklet. The articles which have been held are then taken up, one by one, discussed and acted upon. Town Meeting may adopt an article as recommended, amend it, refer it to a committee, lay it on the table, put it to a town-wide referendum, or defeat it. Voting is usually by voice or a counted standing vote, but a tally of individual votes may be taken at the request of 20 Town Meeting members.

The conduct of the meeting is flexible and it is possible to reconsider the action taken on an article, including those passed by blanket vote. In addition, any decision of Town Meeting except for routine borrowing may be put to a referendum by petition of 5 per cent of the registered voters of the town. Charter amendments require a two-thirds vote of Town Meeting and approval in a referendum.

Town Meeting action is recorded in the Annual Report of the Town which is produced each fall and is available at Town Hall, online, the library and all fire stations. The Annual Report also includes all election results and departmental and committee reports for the calendar year. It is a useful source of information about town affairs.

Selectmen

The chief executive powers of Falmouth are held by the five part-time Selectmen who serve three-year overlapping terms. The Selectmen are paid a modest annual fee, set by town meeting. In 2010, the amount was $3500 for the chair and $3000 for the other four. The Selectmen meet at least once a week, usually on Monday evenings. The meetings are open and televised live on Falmouth Community Television Cable Network--FCTV-13. The Selectmen may vote to go into closed session for specific purposes allowed by the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law.

The Board of Selectmen are the town's principal policy-making and goal-setting board for virtually all non-school functions. They exercise authority by recommending major courses of action to Town Meeting, overseeing the budget process, and approving policies to be carried out by the Town Manager and other officials. In addition, the Charter gives the Selectmen several major responsibilities, which strengthen their control. These include appointment of the Manager and non-elected town boards, licensing authority, the power of investigation, and responsibility for collective bargaining with all non-school municipal unions. They are expected to maintain liaison with other town boards, to mediate disputes between boards, and to meet at least once a year with each board.

Appointments. The most important appointment made by the Selectmen is the Town Manager. The Selectmen work closely with the Manager, decide on his recommendations and have veto power over many of his appointments and organization changes. Other individual appointments by the Selectmen are the Town Accountant and the Constables. The Charter requires the Selectmen to publicize all vacancies and appointments, with a summary of the duties involved, and to give at least seven days notice of the appointment date. Consultation with the board in question is also required.

Licensing. Under state law the Board of Selectmen serves as the town's licensing board, granting shellfishing permits and licenses for various commercial purposes such as running a lodging house or a gas station. The most important licensing function is for the sale of alcoholic beverages, which is heavily regulated by the state. The town's population determines the number of allowable liquor licenses. Public hearings are held on license renewals, transfers and new applications, and on any charges of liquor law violation by a licensee. The board may issue warnings, suspend or revoke licenses, subject to appeal to the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.

Collective Bargaining. Most town workers are union members, represented in 2003 by public employee unions, five in the schools and six in the other town departments. The School Department bargains independently. The non-school unions are the responsibility of the Selectmen, who have the authority to approve collective bargaining agreements. The Charter gives the Manager the duty of negotiating with the unions, but the duty may be delegated if the Selectmen approve. In practice the bargaining unit includes the Manager, department head, a professional labor counsel, and the town personnel director. Although the Selectmen may approve a contract, the necessary funding must be approved by Town Meeting.

The Town of Falmouth has more than a 1000 full and permanent part-time employees. Additional summer help is hired, primarily temporary police, DPW, and beach workers. More than half of the regular employees are in the school department. Police, fire and public works departments account for most of the rest of the non-school employees.

Town Manager

The Town Manager is the most powerful individual in town government, with day-to-day responsibility for the smooth operation of most town departments, preparation and administration of budgets, purchasing, zoning enforcement and personnel management. The Manager must work closely with the Selectmen and with department heads, board chairs and other town officers. He makes several key appointments, proposes changes in departmental structure, and may serve as head of one or more divisions of town government. Most citizens with questions or problems concerning town affairs will go first to the Manager's office.

Such manifold responsibility calls for a professional, and the Charter spells out the educational and experience requirements for the job: preferably a master's degree in public or business administration and at least three years of full-time paid administrative experience at the executive level. The Manager is appointed for an indefinite term by the Selectmen and may be removed by them upon appropriate notice and hearing. Four of the five Selectmen must vote to appoint a Manager; three votes are required for removal. The Manager's salary is negotiated with the Selectmen but must be approved by Town Meeting. Performance is evaluated annually by the Selectmen in accordance with written procedures and criteria.

Appointments. The Manager appoints and may suspend or remove all department and division heads, the Assistant Town Manager, the Town Treasurer, Town Planner, Town Collector, Director of Personnel, the town legal counsel and other professional employees including the Police Chief, Fire Chief and DPW Director. All such appointments are subject to the approval of the Selectmen but are automatically approved if no action is taken within ten working days. If the employee reports to another town board, as the Town Planner does, for example, the appointment is made after consultation with that body.

Organization. The Manager heads the pyramidal structure of town government and may reshape that structure for more effective and efficient operation, subject of course to the approval of the Selectmen and funding by Town Meeting. Two or more divisions may be combined into departments, such as public safety or natural resources. The Manager may serve as department head, and a department head may serve as head of one or more divisions within that department.

Personnel. Acting through the Personnel Director, the Manager is responsible for the administration and enforcement of collective bargaining agreements and other town regulations affecting personnel management. A salary administration plan is incorporated in the town by-laws. It provides job descriptions, salary schedules and policies on working hours, overtime, vacations and other benefits, promotions and transfers. Most new position descriptions and other changes in the plan originate with a department head and are reviewed by the personnel director with input from the Equity/Affirmative Action Committee. They must be approved by the Manager, the Board of Selectmen, and ultimately by Town Meeting.

The police and fire departments are governed by the state civil service regulations and all vacancies below the level of Chief in those departments are filled from lists provided by the state Department of Personnel Administration. The personnel office advertises all other non-school job openings and does a preliminary screening of applicants. The office also processes unemployment and retirement benefits as well as claims resulting from injuries.

Equity/Affirmative Action. Falmouth employs a professional Equity/Affirmative Action Officer who works with both the Equity/Affirmative Action Committees of the town and the school department. He is also the town's Fair Housing and Minority Business Enterprise Officer.

The Equity/Affirmative Action Committee has seven members appointed by the Selectmen. Its role is to ensure compliance with state and federal affirmative action laws and regulations and to promote equal opportunity and equal treatment for all town employees and applicants for town jobs. To accomplish these goals the committee and the Equity/Affirmative Action Officer prepare and regularly update a detailed plan for approval by the Selectmen.

Working with the Personnel Director, the Equity/Affirmative Action Officer makes sure that job openings are advertised widely and that minority and women applicants are treated fairly throughout the recruitment process and in the event of layoffs. Complaints about discrimination or sexual harassment from employees or members of the public are reviewed and, if possible, mediated by the Equity/Affirmative Action Officer. In the event of a formal grievance the committee may hold a hearing and recommend action to the Selectmen.

As the Fair Housing Officer, the Equity/Affirmative Action Officer deals with inquiries and complaints and serves as liaison with community groups concerned with fair housing, and with local realtors and bankers. As Minority Business Enterprise Officer, he monitors town contracts for compliance with minority hiring criteria.

The school Equity/Affirmative Action Committee includes parents as well as school staff. It was established in the 1970s as a mandate of Title IX of the Federal Education Act, to ensure fair and nondiscriminatory employment practices and equal opportunity for students. It also encourages teachers to use multicultural curricula, and works to involve minority parents in school affairs.

Commission on Disabilities. The Commission on Disabilities works on various projects to make Falmouth truly accessible to everyone.

Information Technology Department. This department has kept the town up-to-date with computer hardware and software. It maintains a Geographic Information System (GIS) that provides invaluable data for other town departments.

Town Clerk

The office of Town Clerk is one of the oldest and most important throughout New England. The job requires familiarity with state laws and thorough knowledge of the town and its government; consequently the Town Clerk, like the Moderator, is usually re-elected again and again without opposition. In Falmouth the term is three years. The Clerk serves as clerk of Town Meeting and as clerk of the Board of Registrars. In the former capacity the Clerk must post formal notice of Town Meeting in accordance with state law and must keep a faithful record of the proceedings.

The Town Clerk's office keeps all the official records of births, deaths, marriages and other vital statistics. As a licensing agency under state law, the clerk's office issues marriage licenses and dog licenses. It records all Town Meeting decisions and the actions of the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals. The clerk maintains the town vault, which protects the town's official records. Copies of the town charter, by-laws, and other rules and regulations under which town departments function can be purchased at the Clerk's office. The staff handles most of the town's correspondence with the state and county agencies, other communities and the general public.

The Clerk plays many important roles in the election process, by posting notices of elections, determining by lot the order of listing of candidates on the town ballot, and swearing in the winners. With the registrars, the Clerk certifies petition signatures for candidates or ballot questions, certifies election results, and supervises any recount. The Board of Registrars also checks signatures on affidavits and petitions.