“I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
The famously harsh opinion as voiced by anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist some years back. Tracy Hall may not fit in Grover’s bathtub, but it’s as small as government gets, and survey consistently show that Norwich residents are satisfied with our local government. As luck would have it, not only are we happy with them – they, apparently, like us, too.
“The best part of working in Norwich is the people,” declares Bonnie Munday when she’s done explaining the minutiae of fishing licenses to a customer. Bonnie has been our town clerk for close to twenty years, and is one of the faces and the institutional memory of our small town government. Sure, she says, there are days when she gets home and has had it with people and their issues, but she mostly enjoys the challenge of dealing with the needs of the 3,500 individuals who make up our community.
Of the People, by the People, for the People
Norwich resident Rob Gurwitt has observed and written about government in all its forms for decades. He explains that in bigger communities government tends to get professionalized, with a mayor, a city council and lots of staff. As a consequence the layers between citizenry and the government get quite thick.
Town Manager Neil Fulton can confirm that. He contrasts his current circumstances with his tenure at the State of Vermont, where he felt compelled to go out of his way to make himself more accessible to the public in a bureaucracy seemingly rigged to isolate itself from its constituents. Not so at Tracy Hall, where the list of departments and all staff can easily fit on a post-it note. If you want to talk to someone around here, you can pretty much just go right in and talk to them.
Even beyond the highly visible town clerk, our local government takes place through people dealing with people on both sides of the counter.
One of the unique and valuable things about local government, says Gurwitt, isn’t just that it’s so personable and accessible, it’s that the citizens in a town like Norwich really are the government by way of the committees and boards that deal with policy matters. Not so much ownership as a shared sense of responsibility for town governance.
Management by Committee can be Good?
Zoning Administrator and Planning Coordinator Phil Deckert is a 20-year veteran of Tracy Hall and involved with several community boards and committees. He likes that. “The boards are good. Board members bring different things to the table, different perspectives. But it’s unlike 10 years ago when it was contentious and highly politicized – ‘pro-growth vs. no-growth.’ Now it’s a question of: ‘we know there’s going to be growth, so let’s think about how and where it’s going to happen.’ It’s local and common sense,” he says.
There will of course always be storms in a tea-cup in Norwich (think band-stands and, most recently, license plate readers), but to Neil Fulton even those points of contention reflect a healthy sense of citizen involvement. The discussions, he points out, are largely civil and people feel it’s safe to participate.
If people can be said to make up a community, then the same can is definitely the case with government on our scale: not a leviathan, but rather a small handful of real people who care about our community and represent us well.
(This story was first published in the Summer 2012 Norwich Times)