Monday, November 2, 2009

November 1915: Brookline Votes for Representative Town Meeting

On this date in 1915 Brookline Town Meeting as we now know it was voted into existence.

On November 2, 1915 Brookline's voters overwhelmingly approved a change from traditional town meeting to a limited or representative town meeting in which "town meeting members" are elected by voters to represent them in the town's legislative body.

Brookline thus became the first town in Massachusetts to adopt this variation on the traditional New England open town meeting. (In an open town meeting any registered voter in attendance can participate in decisions.)

Today, 39 of Massachusetts' 298 towns operate under the representative town meeting system. The others retain the traditional open meeting format. (There are also 53 municipalities in the Commonwealth with a city form of government.)

Representative town meeting was proposed as early as 1897 by Brookline's Alfred D. Chandler (1847-1923) as a means of dealing with the growth of the town's population. By 1915, Chandler later wrote, only about 20% of the electorate could fit in the 800-seat Town Hall where town meetings were held.

The town meetings were therefore controlled by the first to arrive, or the strongest, and often by the least responsible, creating a situation that sapped the 'vital feature of the town system of government' which has so long been recognized and is practicable in small towns, but is unavoidably lost in large towns.

Alfred D. ChandlerChandler's proposal was taken under consideration in Brookline in 1900 but not adopted. Instead, Newport, Rhode Island in 1906 took up the idea and became the first municipality in New England to install a representative town meeting form of government. (Chandler served as a consultant to Newport.)

Members of Newport's 195-member Legislative Council came to Brookline in 1914 to describe their experience as Brookline debated whether to follow their lead. In January 1915 a petition was presented to the state legislature, and later that year the legislature passed "An Act to Provide for Precinct Voting, Limited Town Meetings, Meeting Members, a Referendum, and an Annual Moderator in the Town of Brookline."

The final step—approval by the town's electorate—took place in November by a vote of 3,191 to 1,180. The final town meeting under the old format took place on December 15, 1915, two days after a plan dividing the town into nine precincts for the new system was formally adopted.

On March 7, 1916 voters elected 27 town meeting members from each of the nine precincts. Stormy weather and a lack of competitive races for town-wide offices kept turnout to 40% of registered voters, reported the Boston Globe .

In addition to the 243 precinct representatives, the new legislative body would include: any state senators and representatives living in town; members of the Board of Selectmen; the town moderator, town clerk, and town treasurer; and the chairs of the Board of Assessors, the School Committee, the Library Trustees, the Walnut Hills Cemetery Board, the Water Board, the Parks Commission, the Planning Board, the Tree Planting Committee, the Gymnasium and Baths Committee, and the Registrars of Voters.

Interior of 1873 Town HallThe first town meeting under the new format took place on March 21, 1916 in Town Hall. A railing across the width of the meeting hall restricted the front part of the room to town meeting members. (Brookline police checked their credentials before letting them through.)

The nearly 400 seats reserved for spectators were packed. (Any registered voter could speak, though only town meeting members could vote.) "The efficient manner in which Brookline's first meeting, under the new limited town meeting act was conducted in Town Hall last evening, influenced a great many of the citizens in the belief that the experiment will be successful," reported the Boston Globe.

Also among the spectators were representatives from other towns who were considering the new format for their own communities.

Representative town meeting continues to be the form of government used by Brookline today. There are now 16 precincts with 15 town meeting members each. Town meeting today also includes members of the Board of Selectmen, the town clerk and moderator, and any state senators or representatives who live in town.


* The portrait of Alfred D. Chandler is from A History of Brookline, Massachusetts, from the First Settlement of Muddy River Until the Present Time: 1630-1906 published in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the town. Chandler's grandson, Albert D. Chandler Jr. (1918-2007) was a professor of business history who Fortune magazine called “America’s preeminent business historian.”


  1. Ken, I once looked into how the town's name changed from Brooklyn to Brookline, but I never chased down the deep documentation. Have you ever looked into that? There's no mention in the town records, just a switch from one meeting to the next. I even wrote a humorous column about this in the Tab years back. I did not find any petition or vote but I didn't exactly look hard.

  2. The Library Trustees were automatically members? When did that no longer be the case? (I know that I hold both offices as separate offices.)

    We should make sure to have a commemoration for the 100th anniversary.

  3. Michael -

    It was only the chair of the Library Trustees (and other boards) who was automatically included as a town meeting member. I'll have to research some more -- or maybe ask Pat Ward -- to find out when that changed.

    A centennial celebration sounds like a good idea to me.

    - Ken

  4. On the spelling of the town's name, I believe this is more a matter of lack of spelling standardization in the 18th and 19th centuries than of any official change in the town's name. The General Court's granting of the petition that established the town in 1705 called it Brookline. But there are newspaper stories for years after that spell it Brookline, Brooklin, Brooklyne, and Brooklyn.