The Time to Govern a City with American Principles

Cities and towns of difference sizes, managing vastly different levels of resources, have different needs to govern. This page provides an overview of different governing systems within Massachusetts municipalities and why we believe Worcester has outgrown its system. 

An American Value Older than the United States

Massachusetts voters rejected a state constitution written by the legislature in 1778 that did not include the separation of powers or a statement of individual rights. The legislature organized the election of delegates to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, which met for two months in 1779. The convention produced the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, the state’s Constitution, which voters approved in 1780.
"In the government of this commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men."

Derived from this concept is the phrase co-equal branches of government, a fundamental tenet of American civics.

Massachusetts was the last of the 13 colonies to enact a state constutition, but the first to write its constitution at a convention. The Massachusetts Constitution acted as a model for the U.S. Constitution.

Cities in
Operate with
a City Manager

Systems of Municipal Government in Massachusetts

There are 351 municipalities in Massachusetts, including 59 cities. Of those 59 cities, 15 operate with a City Manager. Three, including Worcester, operate with both a mayor and City Manager. Worcester is the only one of the three that elects the Mayor. In the other two, Cambridge and Lowell, the mayor is elected by the council. 

In Worcester’s governing system, the mayor is the chairperson of city council, often called the council president, and the ceremonial head of the city. The city manager leads the operation of the government. 

Of the 292 towns, 177 have a town administrator and 79 have a town manager. State law does not define these roles, which allows towns to define the position themselves. While there are some variations between towns, the primary role is overseeing the operation of the city government. 

Differences in Select Board and City Council

Both a select board in a town and a city council are the highest level elected boards in a municipality. However, they have distinctly different roles.

In a town, the select board, often called a board of selectmen or town council, is the chief executive of the town. The town manager is an administrator and chief operations officer.

In a city, the city council is a legislative body. The powers and responsibilities of the city manager are determined locally, in the city’s charter. City Council is intended to be the source of city policy. 

Both Cambridge and Lowell adopted the language provided in state law for a city manager as “shall be the chief administrative officer of the city and shall be responsible for the administration of all departments, commissions, boards and officers of the city.”

Municipalities are not required to adopt the language in state law. Instead, they can write their own charter, which must be approved by the state.

In Worcester’s Charter, the city manager is defined as “chief administrative and executive officer.”

The administration of the fiscal, prudential and municipal affairs of the city of Worcester, with the government thereof, shall be vested in an executive branch headed by a city manager, and a legislative branch to consist of a city council.
Town Council
function of a town government
City Council
function of a city government

The Time to Implement Co-Equal Branches

The type of governing system used by municipalities in Massachusetts is not determined by population. The largest municipality operating with a town government system in the state is Brookline, with over 63,000 residents. The smallest operating with a city government system is Palmer, with nearly 12,500 residents. Palmer operates with a City Manager-Council system, without a mayor. 

A municipality like Palmer, with a $44 million budget in FY 24, does not have the same governance needs as Worcester. Palmer operates with fewer resources, has smaller operations, less policy to manage, and far fewer opportunities for waste, fraud, and abuse. 

It would not be practical for a smaller community to implement the principles of co-equal executive and legislative branches, with separate and distinct responsibilities, and strong oversight mechanisms.

Worcester has over 206,000 residents, over 8,000 municipal employees, a payroll over $500 million, and a budget proposal for fiscal year 2025 of over $893 million.

There is no magic formula to determine the right time for a municipality to adopt a governing system suitable for a larger city. 

We believe Worcester, the second largest city in New England, has reached that time.