×

Debate over term ‘selectman’ pits past against the future in N.H. towns



Monitor staff
Sunday, August 26, 2018

Sandra McKenney doesn’t want to be called a selectwoman, but the old title of “selectman” doesn’t quite fit either.

“I prefer ‘selectperson,’ ” the Allenstown Board of Selectmen member said. “ ‘Selectwoman’ I don’t care for. That way it’s gendered.”

In town offices across the state, officials continue to debate whether they should stick to calling themselves “selectmen” or if the term should be tossed for the gender-neutral “select board.”

Many town leaders who are opposed to changing the term root their defense in tradition, while their colleagues who wish to change the name say it is an archaic phrase, one that harkens back to a time where men were the sole decision-makers and women couldn’t vote or run for political office.

The debate cropped up most recently in Goffstown, where the board swiftly shot down a proposal earlier this month to change to “Select Board” after a resident prompted the discussion during a public comment exchange in July. The vote was 3-2 in favor of maintaining the current name.

That Goffstown resident was Karen Hewes, a Manchester attorney, who raised the point after reading a news story about Exeter making the switch back in March.

“Thinking about it and having a woman serving on our board, I thought it would be a good idea to change the name,” Hewes told the Monitor. “Why not? Goffstown was incorporated in 1861 ... and women have had the right to vote since 1920. The term ‘Board of Selectmen’ was not meant to include women.”

This topic reached the Concord area in 2013 when the towns of Hopkinton and Webster made the switch to “Select Board.” In Webster, the gender-neutral naming convention includes the individuals. Michael Borek is listed as “Chairperson” of the select board while Nanci Schofield and Chris Schadler are “selectpersons.”

The towns of Bow, Weare, Dunbarton, Henniker, Allenstown, Pembroke, Epsom, Chichester, Loudon, Canterbury and Boscawen all continue to use “Board of Selectmen.” That was the only term allowed by state law until it was amended in 2008, giving local officials the options of using select board, selectwoman and selectperson.

Tina Courtemanche is the chairwoman of the Pembroke Board of Selectmen, which has three women and two men.

Still, she doesn’t have a strong opinion on the topic.

“It hasn’t come up on our board,” she said. “Personally, I don’t think it is that big of a deal.”

Fight in Goffstown

Select board member Kelly Boyer, elected this year, is the only woman on the five-member board in Goffstown.

“For me, personally, being the only female member on the board, I’m all for it,” she said of changing to “select board.” “I can’t come up with any reason we wouldn’t do it. In an effort to be most inclusive, I think that it’s a great thing to do.”

Boyer asked Town Administrator Adam Jacobs to study to the impact of changing the name, which he said would be marginal.

“We could update the website ... that could probably be done by the end of the day,” Jacobs said during the meeting this month, adding that stationary and signage would need to be changed but would come at “little cost.” The term would need to be updated in various forms as well as the oaths that members take when elected, he said.

Peter Georgantas, chairman of the board, was first to speak out against the change.

“There’s no reason for it,” he said. “There’s nothing that is compelling us to do it except that it sounds good, I guess.”

Hewes, in a separate interview for this story, addressed Georgantas’s point directly.

“He is recognizing that changing it to ‘Select Board’ makes the town look better but then says we’re not going to do it,” Hewes said. “The only legitimate reason to come up against this is something that is rooted in sexism, whether it is subconscious or conscious.”

Georgantas was joined by board members John Brown and Mark Lemay against changing the name. Selectman David Pierce sided with Boyer, saying, “I’m in favor of a more inclusive term.”

Georgantas declined additional comment to the Monitor when reached by email, writing, “I really don’t have much more to say that is not in the Minutes.”

Boyer answered a phone call and admitted she was surprised by the discussion and result since, in her opinion, there was no “concrete” reason to reject the change.

“I don’t see any reason not to do it,” she said. “Tradition and history is more of an excuse to halt progress in this situation.”

Following the board’s vote, Hewes, the Goffstown resident, created an online petition to change the name. It had 147 signatures as of Sunday afternoon. Hewes said she is not sure how many of those signatures are from Goffstown residents. She plans to present to the petition during the public comment session when the board reconvenes Monday.

The Goffstown board can revisit the topic if a member makes a new proposal, or brings it back for reconsideration. In Wilton, board members rejected the proposed name change in February but then accepted it a couple of weeks later. Board member Kermit Williams, who initially voted against it, moved to revisit the topic and changed his vote, which allowed the measure to pass, 2-1.

Hewes said she hopes for a similar result in Goffstown, where all it would take is one member to flip to change the name.

“In 2018 we should take a step back and look at things and realize it’s not change for the sake of change, but change to make our community feel more included,” she said.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)