The following was written by Framingham Town Historian Fred Wallace and shared with the Framingham Source via the Framingham History Center.
It is a reflection on the history of the Town of Framingham. On January 1, 2018 Framingham will officially become a city.
On December 31st of this year, 2017, the era of government by town meeting will come to an end in Framingham.
Since our incorporation more than three hundred years ago we have conducted our business in this manner, often called the “purest form of democracy”.
Reaction to becoming a city has been mixed. It has saddened many while others view it as a step long overdue in a world that has changed in so many ways over the years.
As Framingham’s Town Historian, I have some thoughts on the subject which I would like to share with you.
The truth is that in the early days, this system had it flaws.
For example, only men, in fact only men who were property owners, had the right to vote. And a good fifty percent of the town’s residents, i. e. women, were excluded. So it was “pure democracy” in only a limited sense. The so-called town fathers, men of power and wealth, met once a year to do the town’s business. Much has changed since then. The reality is that our form of government has been changing and evolving constantly over the past three hundred years.
Perhaps the most dramatic change in America in the past three hundred years is the pace of all things – travel, commerce, technological development, etc.
For example, in 1800 the basic mode of transportation was the stage coach and the journey from Boston to Worcester took two days. Framingham Centre was a perfect half way point, and hotels sprung up there to accommodate travelers.
Then in 1833 the railroad came to the south of town, and that journey was reduced to less than a day. The center of commerce in town soon shifted to the south.
Today Boston residents hop in their automobiles and make the trip on the Mass. Turnpike in a couple hours. Town government has struggled to maintain pace with changes like this in all phases of life.
In response to this shrinking of our world in space and time, voices were heard as early as the 1890’s, favoring a change to a city form, with a mayor and city council The first official attempt to do so was begun in 1911. I am struck by words in a report to town meeting produced at that time:
“It appear[s] to be admitted on all sides that Framingham has outgrow the limitations of the town meeting form [of government]. It cannot be successfully contended that, with three thousand registered voters, we now have, or can again expect to have, a town meeting which will in the slightest degree resemble a deliberative assembly of the voters and tax payers acting as a municipal legislative body.”
Today we have over 30,000 registered voters!
However, on this question change has come hard. It was not until 1921 that women were granted the right to vote. Throughout the twentieth century our town meeting form has undergone constant change in response to constantly changing circumstances, economic, political, and social, and especially rapid growth in population. Several attempts to pass a city charter were made and each was defeated. However, a close examination of town records shows that certain key provisions contained in each of these proposals were quietly adopted by town meeting a year or two afterwards. We were adapting to the times. A good example of this was in 1950, when the town voted to adopt a representative form of town meeting, consisting of just 216 townspeople elected by precinct to conduct its business.
By 1972, Framingham’s population was exploding and town government bodies staffed by citizen appointees were overwhelmed with work. The town began to hire staff professionally trained in various aspects of government, long range planning for economic growth and so on, shifting major responsibilities from citizen boards and commissions to these professionals.
At the same time the town established a permanent body called the government study committee, whose sole function was to constantly monitor and adapt the town meeting, government structure and bylaws to the changing needs of the times. Another proposal was put forward which would have created a position of strong town manager, putting a professionally trained person in charge of the day to day operations of the town government. It was defeated. Two years later the town meeting passed an article creating a similar, if somewhat watered down, position of Executive Administrator, with many of the same powers!
Again, in 1993, another proposal was put forward, which called for a strong town manager. Once again the goal was to improve the functions and efficiency of the town’s government. Again it was defeated by the voters.
Shortly thereafter, in 1996, town meeting approved an act creating e strong town manager position, and it was approved by the voters the same year. So the pattern of rejecting change, be it a city charter or other major structural change to town meeting, and then adopting some of the most important features of each plan has continued. The process of patching up, modifying, adapting the old town meeting format to a twenty first century environment continued , but it was becoming more difficult with each passing year. So this year we finally made the change – we have taken the leap!
As I reflect on these events, I see it not as the end of something but rather as one more step in an ongoing process to make town government the best it can be in meeting the needs of the times. Yes we are nostalgic for the old ways, and we can look back on a time when everything was simpler, but change inevitable. Over the centuries we have built a fine town (now a city), one that looks a lot like America as a whole – diverse, urban, suburban and rural. We have kept abreast of the times and our government is now doing the same. And I am reminded of a line from another town report written in 1916, which I will paraphrase as follows:
More important than the form of government which we adopt is the character of those, whom we elect to serve.
With this thought in mind I feel good about where we are. Working together, we can create a bright future for our city, one which will create a strong sense of community, and make Framingham an even better place to own a home, to raise a family, or start a business, while preserving and celebrating the legacy of our past.