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Barnstable County

Much of the information on this page is excerpted from “How Barnstable County is Governed,” from the Educational Trust for the League of Women Voters of Lower Cape Cod, Orleans, 1991. Barnstable County thanks the League for its assistance.

Counties have had a part in Massachusetts government since Colonial times. Barnstable County itself was established in 1685.

Originally, counties had judicial functions, but over time responsibilities were added, such as administration of the penal system, supervision of certain health facilites, highways, agriculture, and registration of deeds.

State law provided for election of officials, including county commissioners, district attorneys, sheriffs, clerks of courts, and registers of both deeds and probate.

In recent years, there were two major changes in the government structure.

  1. Until relatively recently, Barnstable County was similar to other Massachusetts counties: Barnstable County had no legislative authority. The Barnstable County Home Rule Charter of 1988, however, provided certain rights of home rule, as well as opportunities for increased citizen participation in county government. It created a county legislative body, the Assembly of Delegates, with the power to enact ordinances. The Home Rule Charter states:
    (From Section 1 of the County Charter) 

    ” We, the people of Barnstable County, in order to gain for ourselves and for our communities all the rights, powers, privileges, duties, and obligations which may now or in the future be derived from county government, do establish for ourselves and for our communities the means and structure to deal with regional issues which transcend the existing boundaries of municipal governments. This home rule cape_16th_century_mapcharter for Barnstable County places the power and responsibility to deal with unique problems of Barnstable County in a county government directly responsible to the people of Barnstable County.”

    Please see The Barnstable County Home Rule Charter for more information.

  2. The second major change – the Cape Cod Commission Act of 1990 – created a regional planning agency with regulatory power.Please see The Cape Cod Commission.