For Some Massachusetts Local Politicians, It’s Now ‘Selectperson’

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Is it the Board of Selectmen or is it the Select Board?

That’s a question some towns have wrestled with in recent years, with some opting for “Select Board,” which they deem gender-neutral and therefore better.

But what about the job itself? Are men and women both selectmen? Are women selectwomen? Or is there any alternative to the two?

It turns out that there is:  selectperson. Although town elections are, on paper, nonpartisan elections in most towns in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, those using the term “selectperson” have something in common:  they lean left.

That includes Michelle Larned, who is running for selectman in Hingham this year. The header of her campaign web site reads “Michelle Larned for Selectperson-Hingham.” And while the site doesn’t address the specific issues she supports, it notes that she is on the board of the Hingham Pride Project. The organization provides households in Hingham with LGBT pride flags free of charge.

Additionally, Larned donated $91.50 to state representative candidate Melissa Smith of Hingham last year, as records from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance reveal. Smith, a Democrat, unsuccessfully challenged incumbent state Representative James Murphy (D-Hingham) in the Democratic primary. Smith ran on supporting universal health care at the state level, supporting the ROE Act abortion expansion bill, and seeking to make Massachusetts a sanctuary state (the Safe Communities Act).

Larned explained her decision to use the gender-neutral term in an email message to NewBostonPost on Friday morning.

“I chose to use the gender neutral term Selectperson as a means to help resolve some of the gender assumptions that occur throughout our language,” Larned wrote. ” Those who are interested in serving their town should feel comfortable serving regardless of gender. Many of the names of these elected offices were selected long ago when only men were able to serve.  As time has gone one, many women have served and despite this, the language has not changed.  Language evolves over time and I think use of gender neutral terms is a very easy change to make.  No one is harmed by the change but many people are helped by seeing increased representation.”

Hingham’s annual town election is set for Saturday, May 22.

In Stoughton, two incumbents use the label as well:  Debra Roberts and Christine Howe.

Roberts’s Facebook page identifies her as “Stoughton Selectperson Debra Roberts”. 

Roberts endorsed state Representative Ted Philips (D-Sharon) in his first-ever run for state representative last year. Philips, a socially progressive Democrat, supports the ROE Act abortion expansion measure and reducing the role charter schools play in public education, according to his campaign web site. His campaign web site also says he wants to “Reform the Civil Service exam to put increased weight on diversity in order to ensure that our public safety agencies, especially police departments, better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.”

Roberts spoke to NewBostonPost by telephone in the winter about her decision to use the term. She said she would describe herself as “fiscally conservative” in town politics rather than “progressive,” but supports the use of the term “selectperson.”

She said a reason to use “selectperson” is that Stoughton uses the gender-neutral term “Select Board” rather than Board of Selectmen.

“It could be deemed as being progressive, but you have constituents across town who have different points of view,” Roberts said. “They’re bringing up ideas for consideration. That’s where this good work comes from; people are speaking up now.”

Roberts also said that she expects more local politicians will use the term in the future.

“It’s the comfort level,” she said. “If you’re so used to saying something one way, it takes some time to make the change. There’s articles on Google on what towns are going through, and you have towns that want to remain the same because Selectman is a New England term, but then you have constituents saying, ‘Wait a minute, that doesn’t always have to be the case.’ You have to stop and consider their point of view.”

Additionally, Roberts told NewBostonPost why she backed Phillips in his run for state representative. Philips was the legislative director for recently retired state representative Lou Kafka (D-Stoughton) before running for state representative himself. 

“It was his commitment to the town of Stoughton and the local area,” Roberts said of her support of Philips. “He’s been around. I’ve worked with him. He’s attended events and things of that nature. It gives you a comfort level too knowing that he knows his way around legislation.”

As for Howe, the name of her Facebook page is “Stoughton Selectperson Christine Howe.”  Like Roberts, she supported Philips’s run for state representative. Philips’s endorsement page on his campaign web site includes her name alongside Roberts and other local officials in the area. 

In northeastern Massachusetts, a candidate is using the term as well.

Former Wenham town clerk Dianne Bucco is running for selectman in Wenham. Her campaign Facebook page says, “Bucco For Selectperson-Wenham.”

Although Bucco hasn’t donated to any politicians, she posted on her personal Facebook in March 2020 that she is a fan of left-wing late night comedian Trevor Noah. She wrote, “Trevor Noah was awesome this morning on CBS.”

Bucco told NewBostonPost in an email on Monday why she uses the term “selectperson”.

“I felt uncomfortable running for a ‘man’s’ seat nor did I want to run as a select ‘woman’, so I chose selectperson,” she said. “As of Saturday, Town Meeting in Wenham did decide to rename the BOS to select board so I suppose should I win, I will called a select board member.”

As Bucco notes, Wenham residents at the annual Town Meeting on May 1 changed the Board of Selectman to the Select Board, as WickedLocal also reported.

The Wenham town election is set for Thursday, May 6.

The term “selectperson” is not a new phenomenon. When Alex Selvig unsuccessfully ran for selectman in Weston in 2015, he used it, as well.

His campaign Twitter account stated that he was “Running for the Board of Selectpersons of the Town of Weston.” That’s the case even though Weston calls its Board of Selectmen a “Select Board” on the town web site.

The year before he ran for selectman, Selvig contributed $500 to Democrat Martha Coakley’s unsuccessful campaign for governor against Charlie Baker, as state Office of Campaign and Political Finance records show. Then in 2017 when former Newton Mayor Setti Warren, a Democrat, wanted to run for governor against Baker, Selvig gave him $250, according to that same report.

Bucco, Howe, and Selvig could not be reached for comment this past week.

Some supporters of gender-neutral language don’t “Selectperson,” either because they think it’s clunky or because even “-person” suggests a hint of possible gender. One such person is Doug Jones, a member of the body that Falmouth at the time called its Board of Selectmen, who gave $250 to the campaign of former board colleague Susan Moran, a Democrat, on November 14, 2020, 11 days after she won the general election for Massachusetts state senator in the Plymouth and Barnstable District.

During a board meeting in January 2019, Jones unsuccessfully suggested that “Board of Selectmen” be replaced by “Board of Selectors.”

“And the fact that the word doesn’t exist I don’t think shouldn’t stop us,” Jones said.