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Foxborough

Selectman pushing to change panel’s name to gender-neutral ‘select board’

Selectman James DeVellis of Foxborough said it was a question posed to him by a woman at the senior center in April that first gave him the idea.

“She asked if I had a daughter, and when I said, ‘yes,’ she simply asked how she would feel being called a select-man,” DeVellis said by e-mail.

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Inspired by the question, DeVellis plans to propose that the town change the name of the Board of Selectmen to the Select Board, removing all reference to gender. DeVellis said he plans to kick off the effort by discussing it with his board at an upcoming meeting, probably on June 25.

If his proposal is adopted, Foxborough would join a small but growing number of Massachusetts towns that have renamed their executive body the “select board.” An informal search of municipal websites found that about 19 of the state’s 301 towns use that name, most in the western part of the state.

“We’re beginning to see it,” said Patricia Mikes, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, attributing it to the “changing environment of communities.”

Recalling his conversation with the woman, DeVellis, the father of two daughters and a son, said, “It was one of those ‘didn’t see the trees through the forest’ moments.” He said he had not met the woman before or since, but her question “stuck with me.”

“Our board has women serving on it, and last term, women were our majority,” said DeVellis, who was reelected to a second term in April. “Referring to them or requiring themselves to refer to their position as selectman is a bit odd in today’s times. Foxborough has 46 elected or appointed boards or committees and our Board of Selectmen is the only group that is gender specific in title. . . . [It’s] simply time to fix it.”

Victoria A. Budson, executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said towns’ “changing to a gender-neutral term can be one step in a procession that helps break down the barriers to greater participation.”

“The really important part isn’t just the gender issue. It’s that anything we can do to encourage people to participate in a democracy makes the democracy function better,” she said. “In this case, the more people running and participating in local office, the better outcomes we are going to have.”

Noting that the term “selectman” appears throughout the town’s bylaws, DeVellis conceded that effecting a name change will take some work: All bylaw changes must be approved by Town Meeting. But he said it would not amount to “heavy lifting.”

“We are not reinventing the wheel here,” he said, noting for instance, how the name “policeman” has largely been replaced by “police officer,” and “mailman” by “mail carrier.”

DeVellis said that if the term “select board” were adopted, he envisioned individual members would be called “selectman” and “selectwoman,” depending on gender. (The Globe’s policy is to use gender-specific titles.)

At least one of his colleagues on the five-member Board of Selectmen is cool to the idea of a name change.

“To me, it’s the Board of Selectmen,” said Virginia Coppola, one of two women on the board. “I have no problem with it remaining the Board of Selectmen. I’m a woman, but I call myself a ‘selectman.’ All it is is a title. It’s a convention. To me, it doesn’t make a difference.”

“It’s a nonissue as far as I’m concerned,” added Coppola, who said she would probably oppose changing the name.

But Mark S. Sullivan, the board chairman, said he is “supportive of whatever the board is. If that’s what the board would like to do, I’d be fine with it. It’s a whole different day and age. . . . I’m up for discussion; we’ll see what everyone wants to do.”

Another board member, Lorraine A. Brue, said she wanted to hear the proposal before commenting.

Priti Rao, executive director of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, said her organization does not take a position on whether towns should employ a gender-neutral term for their executive board.

“We really do feel it should be up to the local town to decide what to call their own representatives,” she said. “For us, the issue is no matter what they call the position; there are simply not enough women serving in government in Massachusetts.”

“One-third of all communities in Massachusetts have no women serving on their governing body. So for us, it’s really about trying to get women engaged in the political process,” Rao said.

Outside of Foxborough, local members of boards of selectmen offered varying reactions to the idea of their towns adopting the name “select board.”

Selectman Arthur Boyle of Pembroke said the title of board of selectmen is “gender neutral,” so “it’s not an issue.”

“If it came up, I wouldn’t want to give it the time,” he said.

Nancy Maloney, a member of the West Bridgewater Board of Selectmen, said, “We’ve never talked about it and I don’t really see it as an issue. Our name is really not as important as our ability to represent the taxpayers and run the town.”

But Shawn Harris, chairman of the Scituate Board of Selectmen, said that although the idea had not been brought up in his town, “if that’s what the people wanted, I’d have no problem with that.” He said he might raise the idea, himself, at an upcoming meeting of his board.

Colleen Corona, chairwoman of the Easton Board of Selectmen, said the idea has not come up in her town and “I really haven’t put that much thought in it.”

“People do refer to me as Selectwoman Corona, and that solves the problem for me,” she said.

Corona added, though, of changing the name of the board, “Certainly, it’s something to consider.”

“I just don’t see the need to change a longstanding name,” said Selectman Richard Flynn of Hanson. But he said if someone proposed changing it, “I don’t think anybody would be opposed.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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