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Column: Direct Democracy Is Struggling in Norwich and Other Towns

Norwich

“Practice makes perfect,” it’s often said, but surely not in reference to democracy. We’re clearly not getting any better at it.

The democratic debate over competing interests — from New England town meeting to state legislatures to the U.S. Congress — remains as fractious and messy as ever. Messier, maybe, as that democratic debate is increasingly filtered through a vast and growing bureaucratic layer of government administrative roles and regulation.

Indeed, throughout the Upper Valley, New England’s experiment with direct democracy is giving way to a more modern, suburban bureaucracy. More and more town meetings are replacing customary floor debates and votes with annual Australian ballots. Volunteer selectboards cede ever more authority to professional administrators, signaling that American government, even in small communities, may no longer be a matter for amateurs.

Here in Norwich, our experiment with professional administration began in 2002 when we hired our first town manager. Barely 10 years later, convulsed by a series of public controversies, we’re on to our fourth town manager with new controversies brewing. While the details of these spats are fascinating to the participants — and make for good Valley News headlines — the underlying struggle they signify is relevant to all of your readers: Where do we, the amateur citizen-taxpayers, fit within this increasingly bureaucratized democracy?

In its Sept. 23 editorial last year (“Due Diligence”), the Valley News took the position that voters unhappy with our Selectboard’s decision to pursue a contract with VTel to build a communications tower on New Boston Road must content ourselves with the opportunity to elect different Selectboard members when the incumbents come up for re-election in 2014. We’ve taken a more robust approach, twice gathering sufficient signatures to place the VTel contract before town voters. By a 3-2 margin, our Selectboard refused to warn the first two ballot measures. Last month, we chose, instead, to force a bond vote that will give taxpayers a clear choice between a VTel-owned tower and a municipally-owned one. The response from our Selectboard and town manager has been telling.

It being widely recognized we would secure the necessary signatures to force a bond vote, we offered the Selectboard an opportunity to warn the bond vote themselves, on their terms and for an amount they felt adequate to build a municipally owned tower in place of the VTel contract. By another 3-2 vote, the Selectboard refused to warn the bond article, choosing not to amend it in any way. We gathered nearly twice the signatures necessary essentially over a weekend.

A little dose of direct democracy?

Not so fast.

With the bond vote looming on March 5, Norwich Town Manager Neil Fulton is now pressing our Selectboard to enter into a binding contract with VTel at its meeting tomorrow. Resorting to a now familiar pattern, he’s creating a sense of imminent crisis bolstered by doomsday scenarios suggesting this decision is simply too important to be left to the voters.

While I don’t question the commitment of our town manager to doing what he believes is in the town’s best interest, the methods he’s employed exemplify the risks we face in this brave new world of bureaucratized democracy. It also suggests that the Valley News’ confidence in the curative qualities of a ballot box may no longer apply.

Where do amateur citizen-taxpayers fit in if a town manager dictates the Selectboard agenda and controls the flow of information to define the grounds for debate? How can amateur citizen-taxpayers match the time and resources our own tax dollars provide our town manager to manage that debate? We no longer live in the vibrant democracy in which you simply “vote the bums out,” because we don’t get to vote for town manager.

Instead, in today’s bureaucratized democracy, we must hope our selectboards learn how to manage the managers. We have to find ways to hold bureaucrats accountable without making them political appointees or scapegoats. And we need to recognize that the same complexity that makes direct volunteer management of town affairs unrealistic also makes volunteer oversight of professional management very, very difficult.

Watt Alexander, former chairman of the Norwich Development Review Board, lives in Norwich, near the proposed tower site.