Explain the difference between a town and a city form of government in Massachusetts, including the difference between a representative and an open-town meeting.

Focus Question: What are the differences between a representative and open-town meeting form of government?

Topics on this page include:

Town Meetingsfdasfsdf

Representative v. Open Town Meetingsfdafdsf

Cities v. Town Government

Earliest Recorded Town Meeting, Dorchester (Massachusetts), October 8, 1633

Town meeting, Huntington, Vermont, 2006
Town meeting, Huntington, Vermont, 2006

external image 200px-Paperback_book_black_gal.svg.pngInterview with Frank M. Bryan, author of Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works (University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Town Born: An amazing book that provides in depth detail on the New England Town and it's main source of democracy, the town meeting (written by Umass Professor Bary Levy).

Origins of New England town meetings: click here

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book.pngNotes on Town Meeting from Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision-Making Back Home, Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (2012, p. 231).
  • Traditional town meetings are used in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut (not Rhode Island).
  • Switzerland is the only other country that uses town meetings. Every Swiss community, from alpine villages to Zurich, uses some form of town meeting governance.
  • In Swiss communities with large populations, a local parliament replaces all-community member meeting, much like a New England representative town meeting.

Representative vs Open Town Meetings:

Town meetings are a form of direct democracy where citizens make decisions about the policies of the government. A representative form of government has elected officials who govern for the people. The United States Congress as well as the legislatures of all the 50 states are examples of representative form of government.


For more information, go to A Citizens Guide to Town Meeting and What is Representative Government?.

On the right you will see an example of Representative Democracy and on the left you will find an example of direct democracy. Note that the image on the right is the United States House of Representatives Chamber. The middle picture shows a graphic example of the differences between Direct and Representative Democracy.

An open town meeting is one in which all residents of the town are eligible to vote on considered actions, while in a representative town meeting, residents vote for representatives, who vote on proposed actions in town meetings. The population of the town is the key factor in determine whether a town is able to adopt an open town meeting model.

Check out the Citizen's Guide to Town Meetings by the state of Massachusetts for more information. For a general guide on how to operate a town hall meeting, click here.

Massachusetts_state_seal.pngClick here for an online portal to information about cities and towns in Massachusetts. Click here to see the locations of over 35,000 cities and towns in the United States through small-scale data downlad.

Click here see a history of Ashfield, Massachusetts and town meetings in Massachusetts. This book looks at how Ashfield and New England towns like it are a models of direct democracy.

Forms of local government in Massachusetts
  • mayor/council
  • council/ manager
  • open town meeting/ selectmen/ town manager
  • representative town meeting/ selectmen/ town manager

Multimedia.pngClick here for an eating contest advertisement of the Amherst Massachusetts town moderator. In the video, he outlines many of the responsibilities of the moderator and the functions of the town hall meeting.

Video of Vermont town meeting and significance from 1950

multicultural.pngThis article discusses the racial and gender inequality in local government, stating how white men typically monopolize the positions of power in towns and cities.
  • It also has an interactive graph that analyzes racial representation.

Women were barred from participating in town meetings in the New England colonies

Pros and Cons to town meetings

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 11.31.08 AM.pngHere is a lesson plan that is a simulation for students to participate in a typical, traditional town hall meeting to discuss the issues that are important to them in the classroom.

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An Open town meeting follows the Direct Democracy tract. People show up to "town meeting" and directly vote on the issues themselves.
  • In a representative town meeting, voters first elect Town Meeting Members who then vote on the matters on behalf of the voters who elected them.
  • The number of representatives changes on the size of the town and can as few as 45 or as many as 240.
  • Towns with a population of less than 6,000 must have open town meetings, where as towns with more can choose which form they want.
  • One-third of the Town Meeting Members have 3 year terms, another one-third have 2 year terms, and the last one-third have 1 year terms. Eating contests for these positions are also non-partisan, meaning candidates do not run with a party.
  • A town moderator runs the meetings and declares the outcome of all votes (1).

Cities Vs. Town Government:

Cities do not have town meetings. They are governed by city councils or a board of alderman. City governments are representation based and do not follow direct democracy. In order to become a City a municipality must have a population of at least 12,000. Cities have Mayors as executive officers, Towns have Selectmen.

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 11.30.58 AM.pngPlay this game and run your own town! Adjust taxes, help citizens, and get re-elected in "Counties Work".

Current Boston Mayor, Marty Walsh.
Current Boston Mayor, Marty Walsh.

Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino
Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino


1) http://www.sec.state.ma.us/cis/cistwn/twnidx.htm