When new home buyers are scouting out places to live, they look at schools, home prices, crime rates, commute times, and amenities like grocery stores, parks, and restaurants, but one thing most people overlook is how a town or city is run — and by whom.
I was no different. As a single renter, I never gave much thought to local ground-level politics, but once I became a homeowner and a parent, with hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in the community and a more personal stake in its future, I started paying a lot more attention.
“Between schools, police, fire, emergency medical services, roads, water/sewer, health code inspections, zoning, and parks, to name just a few, I would argue that your local government has a more direct impact on your day-to-day life than other levels of government,’’ said Michael Ward, director of municipal services at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management. It’s also the area of government where you as an individual can make the greatest impact, he added. “For both of those reasons, everyone should care deeply about their local government and local politics.’’
To start, it helps to know how your community is set up at the most basic level. There are four major forms of local government in Massachusetts, each with myriad variations. An open town meeting, required by the state constitution for towns of 6,000 or fewer, is the Norman Rockwell painting of small-town democracy — where every registered voter can attend, speak, and vote. Towns with more than 6,000 residents can opt for a representative town meeting, where a few dozen (or a few hundred) elected townspeople represent others in their precincts. Then there are cities, which typically have either an elected mayor and city council or an elected council that appoints a city manager.
While there are hundreds of variations on these themes, and each has pros and cons, one of the most basic choices a home buyer might make is between town and city: Do you want to actively participate in your town’s budgeting and legislative processes or elect someone to do it for you? A town structure is generally seen as more responsive to individual concerns, while a city can be more efficient.
The opportunity to directly shape local policy in an open town meeting is something of a sacred tradition around here — and largely unique to New England. “Town meeting doesn’t really exist outside New England. It goes back to the days of John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Colony,’’ Ward said. “It’s amazing to think about this particular institution operating more or less continuously for 400 years.’’
But while open town meeting is often revered as the purest form of democracy, Ward said, that designation might warrant an asterisk. “Sure, any registered voter can attend, speak, and vote — if you’re available when town meeting is taking place. If you’re not, you’re out of luck,’’ he said. “If you miss the meeting for some unexpected reason, you literally have no access to your local government’s legislative branch until the next town meeting, which could be six or 12 months away. That’s not particularly democratic.’’
Attendance at open town meetings tends to be low, Ward added — unless there’s a controversial topic on the agenda — and sporadic, with many parents staying only until the school budget gets voted on. Many larger towns, beginning with Brookline in 1915, have adopted a representative town meeting, where residents elect their neighbors to vote on their behalf.
The deliberate, transparent nature of town meeting has its frustrations, but ultimately results in more buy-in from the community when changes are implemented, said Melvin Kleckner, Brookline’s town administrator and president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “It’s very time-consuming,’’ Kleckner said, noting that the town’s new trash program was deferred for two years as concerns were raised and compromises reached. “But once all that’s done, it’s been vetted 360 degrees,’’ and the rollout goes more smoothly with broader community awareness and support.
In Brookline, the five-member Board of Selectmen also meets weekly, allowing residents to voice concerns directly. “A board of selectmen must meet in open session, whereas a mayor or city manager has no obligation to do so,’’ Kleckner said. If you appreciate having access to your officials, a town may be for you.
Still, any form of town meeting is generally slow to react to new challenges or opportunities. “We have a town meeting scheduled every year in the spring, but to call a special one it takes about a month,’’ Kleckner said. “For cities that want to act quicker, the city council is always in session, so they can take up a zoning change or something that requires a more immediate approval.’’
A mayor or city manager with executive authority can also be more decisive and communicate a clearer vision for the community. “Sometimes people like one person in charge, not five people that have to deliberate and vote,’’ he said.
As towns grow and people get busier, city-style governance is on the rise in Massachusetts, Ward said. “There is a slow and steady move away from the town form of government and toward the city form, with probably about one town a year opting to become a city,’’ he said. “Last year it was East Longmeadow. This year it was Framingham.’’ Amherst will soon vote on adopting a city form of government as well.
In 2007, Joseph Sullivan was elected the first and as-yet-only mayor of Braintree in its 377-year history after the town voted to adopt a mayoral form of government. Sullivan, a former town selectman and state representative, said the mayoral structure allows for a more nimble approach. “We’re definitely more efficient and better able to respond to what’s happening around us,’’ he said.
For example, he said, if the town didn’t receive as much state revenue as it expected on July 1, “we could have that figured out by the end of July instead of waiting until [town meeting in] the fall.’’
Braintree, like more than a dozen other cities across the Commonwealth, such as Watertown and Winthrop, still officially refers to itself as a town despite having abandoned town meeting in favor of a city form of government. While Sullivan acknowledges there’s some residual nostalgia for town meeting, he said the new structure streamlined some “administrative layering that had taken place over the years,’’ and has helped the town amass a $15 million reserve fund. For homeowners, that can translate to more stability and services.
After the “snowpocalypse’’ of 2015, for example, Braintree was $1.7 million over budget on snow removal, Sullivan said. “But we were able to pay that right down; we didn’t have to deficit spend it or carry it over.’’ And because of the town’s financial strength, he added, it is now able to implement long-awaited school upgrades without resorting to a polarizing Proposition 2½ override. “We’re able to do it within our finances.’’
So what should a home buyer look at when comparing how communities are managed?
“Looking at the municipality’s financial shape is important,’’ Ward said. In the short term, that means checking the municipality’s bond rating, its reserves levels, and its most recent budget documents. Longer term, he said, see whether the community is overly dependent on one revenue source, such as state aid or residential property taxes, or if it has a healthy mix.
“Take a look at the planning board of the town you’re moving to,’’ suggested Judy Alexander, a realtor with Barrett Sotheby’s in Lexington. They’re the ones who’ll decide whether and in what ways a builder can develop the beautiful 5-acre lot next door to you when the owner finally sells it, she said. “Too often people look at empty space as something that will remain that way in perpetuity, and that isn’t the case.’’
“Public safety and public works obviously are also critically important, providing vital services to residents,’’ Ward said. Police and fire departments statewide are being stretched by the opioid epidemic, he said, while other challenges loom on the horizon as well, like the effect an aging population will have on emergency services.
To gauge a town’s innovation and vision, Ward said, look for grants or other recognition from state or national organizations, and check out the community’s master plan. “These are all flawed ways to evaluate a municipality, but they at least may provide some clues,’’ he said.
“It’s also good to get a sense of a community’s politics over the last decade,’’ Ward added. Do you agree with the initiatives voters have approved? Sometimes communities can get caught in a cycle of contentious politics around a toxic topic, he added. “An issue divides the community, factions form around it, trust breaks down, and even after the issue goes away, the animosity and factions remain, which drives out people who aren’t interested in the fighting.’’
No matter where you end up buying a home, though, it’s worth getting involved with your community. “It starts in the schools, with someone being a room parent and eventually being president of the PTA and jumping into school committee and so forth,’’ Alexander said.
Running for local office has the biggest impact, said Christopher Peter McCarthy-Latimer, political science chairman at Framingham State University, but just knowing your community and the people within it helps, too.
“Get to know the main issues,’’ McCarthy-Latimer said, “and participate in the town events. A lost art seems to be talking to and knowing your neighbors.’’
After all, they might just be the ones running the place.
Jon Gorey blogs about homes at HouseandHammer.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.
Correction: A previous version of this story gave the incorrect location of Judy Alexander’s realty office. It is in Lexington.