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The board of selectmen is commonly the executive arm of the government of New England towns in the United States. The board typically consists of three or five members, with or without staggered terms. Three is the most common number, historically.
In most New England towns, the adult voting population gathered annually in a town meeting to act as the local legislature, approving budgets and laws. Day-to-day operations were originally left to individual oversight, but when towns became too large for individuals to handle such work loads, they would elect an executive board of, literally, select(ed) men to run things for them.
These men had charge of the day-to-day operations; selectmen were important in legislating policies central to a community's police force, highway supervisors, poundkeepers, field drivers, and other officials. However, the larger towns grew, the more power would be distributed among other elected boards, such as fire wardens and police departments. For example, population increases led to the need for actual police departments, of which selectmen typically became the commissioners. The advent of tarred roads and automobile traffic led to a need for full-time highway maintainers and plowmen, leaving selectmen to serve as Supervisors of Streets and Ways.
The function of the board of selectmen differs from state to state, and can differ within a given state depending on the type of governance under which a town operates. Selectman is almost always a part-time position that pays only a token or no salary. It is the chief executive branch of local government in the open town meeting form of government.
The basic function consists of calling town meetings, proposing budgets to Town Meeting, setting public policy, calling elections, licensing, appointing and supervising department heads and employees, setting certain fees, overseeing certain volunteer and appointed bodies, and creating basic regulations.
In larger towns, the selectmen's daily administrative duties are delegated to a full-time town administrator or town manager. In some towns, the board of selectmen acts more like a city council, but retains the historic name.
In some places, such as Connecticut, the head of the board of selectmen is the first selectman, who historically has served as the chief administrative officer of the town and may be elected separately from the rest of the board. Sometimes this is a part-time position, with larger towns hiring a full-time town administrator, who answers to the first selectman. In some towns and cities, the first selectman exercises the powers typically associated with mayors. In Massachusetts and New Hampshire, the presiding selectman is usually called the chairman and is chosen annually by his or her fellow selectmen.
In New Hampshire cities (which have a Board of Aldermen instead of a board of selectmen), a "selectman" is an elected position that is responsible for organizing elections for local, state, and federal offices. Three selectmen, a moderator, and a clerk are elected in each city ward.