Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Adopting and Amending a Charter in Massachusetts

Chapter 4 Section 7 of the Massachusetts General Laws defines a charter as:
‘Charter’, when used in connection with the operation of city and town government shall include a written instrument adopted, amended or revised pursuant to the provisions of chapter forty-three B which establishes and defines the structure of city and town government for a particular community and which may create local offices, and distribute powers, duties and responsibilities among local offices and which may establish and define certain procedures to be followed by the city or town government. Special laws enacted by the general court applicable only to one city or town shall be deemed to have the force of a charter and may be amended, repealed and revised in accordance with the provisions of chapter forty-three B unless any such special law contains a specific prohibition against such action.
A charter works as a municipal constitution, acting as the authority on how a city or town’s government is structured and run; it is also subject to amendments and revisions by the municipality.  Municipalities have different options for plans of government:  “Model city charters” (A,B,C,D,E,F), which can be found in Chap. 43 of the M.G.L.; home rule charters (Chap. 43B); and “special act charters” granted by the Massachusetts legislature.  How are changes made to municipal charters?  There are three main routes through which a change can be made:

1. Electing a Home Rule Charter Commission:  Established by the 1966 Home Rule Amendment (Art. LXXXIX) to the Massachusetts Constitution, it allows a city or town, upon the initial petition of 15% of registered voters, to elect and create a 9-member charter commission to amend or prepare a municipal charter.  Once elected, the commission begins weighing the options for structural changes to the local government.  The process relies on the participation of the city or town’s residents through public meetings and public hearings, and both a preliminary and final report must be published by the commission.  When the charter proposal is submitted to the voters during a municipal election, it must be adopted by the majority of the voters.  Home Rule procedures can be found under Chap. 43B and in Article LXXXIX (89) of the MA Constitution.

2. Home Rule Petitions:  Some cities and towns have created their charters through special legislation passed through the Massachusetts General Court (“special act charters”).  Amendments to this type of charter are also usually submitted to the legislature, and when they are passed they become part of the group of statutes called “special acts.”  Before the adoption of the Home Rule Amendment in 1966, this type of petition was the only way for a city or town to make structural changes.

3. Bylaws and “permissive” legislation:  Any city or town can adopt enabling state legislation (“permissive” legislation) or create bylaws (ordinances) to make select changes to the administration, structure, or organization of the local government.  Various sections in Chap. 41 of the MGL offer options for permissive legislation, as well as in Chap. 40N and 43C.  These types of changes require a town meeting or town election vote.

Article I from Attleboro’s city charter.Currently, Attleboro is one of 20 Massachusetts cities,
or one of 90 Massachusetts communities total, that has adopted a “home rule charter”.

For more information, please visit the following web sites:

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Dept.