There are two basic forms of local government in Maine.
There is the "direct" form, often referred to as the town meeting form of government, in which the town meeting serves as the legislative body, passing laws, approving the spending of monies. Then there is the "representational" form, in which an elected council serves as the legislative body.
There are five basic variations of these two forms.
Town Meeting-Selectmen Form of Government
This is the most common in Maine; currently 209 municipalities in Maine have this form of government. It has been called by some the "purest form" of democracy. The town meeting, serving as the legislative arm of the government, usually meets one day a year, usually in March and April. At that time the meeting passes any needed laws (ordinances) for the orderly governing of the town, approves a budget, and levies the taxes. It also elects various town officers including the board of selectmen, which serve in a part-time capacity as the executive arm of the government, administering, enforcing, and carrying out the decisions made by the town meeting. State laws grant the board some legislative powers as well when it comes to regulating vehicles, public ways, and public property. Many towns who find the part-time nature of the board of selectmen is not enough and a full-time manager is too much, hire an administrative assistant to the selectmen. Currently 52 towns have done so. The difference between the assistant and the manager is not so much the duties they perform but in the source and degree of authority they have. One Maine town - Sanford (pop. 20,500) - adopted a so-called "representative" town meeting form of government in 1935. Attempts to switch to a council form of government in Sanford have yet to be successful.
This is the second most common form of local government in Maine. As municipalities grow in size, as state and federal regulations increase in number and complexity, many a municipality (currently, the number is 135) has hired a manager to administer the town government. Under this form of government, the board of selectmen continue to serve as the town's executive body; the only difference is that they now can attend more to issues of policy, now that they have an administrator to oversee the daily operations of the municipality. Towns may adopt the town manager form of government either by adopting the state's Statutory Town Manager Plan or by adopting - via charter - their own custom-designed plan. In either case, the manager is responsible directly to the selectmen. The towns of Mapleton (pop. 1,950), Castle Hill (pop. 470) and Chapman (pop.452) are unique in Maine in that they share in the services of a single manager.
In this variation of the town meeting form of government, the legislative functions of government are shared between the town meeting and an elected council. The most common scenario is to have the town meeting vote on the budget and have the council tend to all other legislative functions. Currently 20 municipalities in Maine have this hybrid form of government.
In this form of government, the council is the elected body of government and serves both the legislative and executive functions. Unlike the town meeting form of government, the Council form must be adopted through the local charter. Currently 37 municipalities in Maine have this form of government. The first city in Maine to adopt this form of government was Auburn in 1917. Portland and Bangor have this form of government.
Only four cities in Maine have adopted this form of government, which is characterized as a "strong mayor" form of government. They include Biddeford, Saco, Westbrook and Waterville. In three of the four cities, the mayor has broad powers of appointment, administration and legislation. For example, in Biddeford the mayor prepares the budget for the city and may veto decisions of the council, including those concerned with the budget; he is also the principal supervisor of all departments. Unlike cities with so-called "weak mayors," where the mayor is often elected by the council, the strong mayors are always elected by the citizenry.