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Column: Town Eating Day Will Have a New Flavor Next Year

Although Norwich is still governed by town meeting, such as the 2012 version pictured above, organizers of Town Eating Day believe that the role that residents play in town governance is changing. The topic will be the single focus of discussion at the 2013 Town Eating Day. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Although Norwich is still governed by town meeting, such as the 2012 version pictured above, organizers of Town Eating Day believe that the role that residents play in town governance is changing. The topic will be the single focus of discussion at the 2013 Town Eating Day. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

Norwich

Call it our seven-year itch.

For the past six winters, Town Eating Day in Norwich has brought people together for food and meaningful conversation about town affairs. It’s been a modest success, a chance for townspeople to connect and find a deeper understanding of the issues affecting our community. We’ve lost count of the times people have told us that talking with their neighbors in this informal but structured way gave them insights they’d been unable to find at Town Meeting or in the agenda-driven gatherings of official town committees.

Yet reluctantly, we’ve decided it’s time for a change.

When we began Town Eating, our concern was simple. One of the gifts of living in small-town New England is that it offers a role for citizens beyond simply stepping into the voting booth. Town governance (not to be confused with town government) relies upon the hard work of ordinary citizens — volunteers willing to give countless hours to town planning or protecting natural resources or analyzing the town’s budget and finances. In town-meeting democracy, where the ultimate legislative power lies with voters, people want to learn what they need to know from real conversations — they want to talk as well as listen, to ask hard questions and weigh the answers, to be informed participants and not mere consumers of official information.

Our approach, though, rested on an assumption: that the town needs citizens who are participants, not merely voters. If Town Eating could both inform townspeople and make the volunteer structure of town government more accessible, we figured, that was a good start.

But towns change. And Norwich, we think, is in the midst of a transition. It’s been laid bare by the controversy over the town’s emergency communications tower, but it began before that. The long and short of it is that the broad base of participation on which town governance once rested is narrowing — and the role that citizens expect to play is changing.

There are a lot of reasons for this. People have less time and inclination to volunteer, so town positions these days often go unfilled. Town government itself has become so complex and so weighted with regulation that it cannot get by without professional guidance. Hard decisions have to be made, and Norwich hasn’t always been effective at making them.

The traumatic case in point is the struggle over renovating versus replacing the bandstand on the town green a few years back. Heated arguments on both sides, and a Selectboard reluctant to make enemies by choosing between them, kept the controversy alive far longer than it deserved. The result, predictable as a pendulum, is a new Selectboard and town manager who are determined to confront the decisions that have to be made, make them, and move on. Even if, as has been the case with the tower, it means leaving a broad cross-section of the town feeling ignored in the process.

Efficient decision-making is hardly a bad thing, and the in-house model being pursued by town leaders is far and away the most common in American community life. But it does raise some questions. What role do citizens play now? If broad-based participation isn’t as important to town governance as it once was, where does that leave small-town democracy? We are still a town-meeting form of government — so how do citizens usefully and constructively oversee what’s being done in their name? If you want to be an engaged citizen in Norwich today, how can you best make a difference in the town’s future?

These are not really questions that the old Town Eating format could address. So we want to try an experiment.

This year, “Town Eating Day” will actually be an evening — Tuesday, Feb. 26, starting at 7. We won’t have the usual fabulous lunch, but we know food matters: We’re looking forward to the cakes, pies and other desserts that will be laid out on the table.

And we know that people still crave good, meaningful conversation. Only this time we won’t break out into different groups. There’ll be just one topic for the evening: “Where do we fit in? Finding our roles as the ground shifts in Norwich.”

Terry Boone, Lisa Cadow, Rob Gurwitt and Henry Scheier are organizers of Town Eating Day in Norwich.