MONTPELIER — The Vermont Apportionment Board (VAB) is nearing a vote on a map depicting 150 one-seat House districts — including a fractured Middlebury — and a Senate version that seems likely to keep the two-seat Addison County and Brandon district intact.
The seven-member VAB has until July 1 to draft maps suggesting new House and Senate boundaries to reflect newly available Vermont Census numbers in a manner that is consistent with the Constitutional standard of “one person, one vote.” Based on new population counts, each representative should have 4,137 constituents.
Local boards of civil authorities in districts affected by the new maps will have an opportunity to weigh in on the proposed changes after July 1, the statutory deadline for the VAB’s work. Next year’s Legislature will look at the plan and can adopt some, all, or none of the VAB’s suggestions.
The committee’s work began late last year and has not been without controversy. The Addison Independent reported on June 20 the VAB had voted on an initial draft House map that altered virtually every Addison County House district, work the committee did in line with the panel majority’s stated philosophy of trying to create as many one-seat districts as possible.
Former Rep. and Sen. Gerry Gossens, D-Salisbury, is a member of the VAB. Also on the panel is Rep. Tom Little, R-Shelburne; former Vermont Republican Committee Chairman Rob Roper; former Rep. Steve Hingtgen, a Progressive Party member who now lives in Montpelier; Republican (and former state Transportation Secretary) Neale Lunderville; St. Albans town Democrat Frank Cioffi; and Progressive Meg Brook of South Burlington.
Gossens last week found himself on the losing end of a 4-3 vote on an initial draft of a House map that, among other things, broke Addison-3 into two, one-seat districts, one comprised of Vergennes, Waltham and Panton, and the other of Ferrisburgh and the western half of Monkton. The map also called for Addison-4 to be split into two one-seat districts, one of which would be Bristol, and the other made up of Lincoln, Starksboro and the eastern half of Monkton.
That initial map left Middlebury untouched as a single, two-seat district. But the latest version (viewable on-line at http://vermont-elections.org/2011LABMaps.html) shows Middlebury divided — along Route 7 — into two separate one-seat districts.
Gossens on Tuesday reiterated his opposition to the proposal and has offered his own map, in association with Little, which he says creates minimal disruption to the current House districts while adhering to the “one-person, one-vote principle.”
“I think it is wrong, on ideological theory, to break up districts that work just fine,” Gossens said. “Our job is to be practical.”
Gossens, at the most recent VAB meeting (June 16), reiterated his opposition to the majority-supported plan and outlined what he said would be substantial drawbacks in dividing Middlebury. Such a move, he argued, fails to recognize that one of the new districts would include more than 2,000 Middlebury College students, a majority of whom doesn’t register to vote in Vermont.
The Middlebury House district (Addison-1) is currently represented by Democrats Betty Nuovo and Paul Ralston. Had the Nuovos not recently moved to a different part of town — and if the splitting of Middlebury were endorsed by the Legislature — the two incumbents would have to run against each other in 2012.
“I think Middlebury is a quintessential two-seat district ... It is a homogenous town with no real cultural or community boundaries,” said Ralston, adding, “I don’t see the value in doing this.”
The two Progressives and two of the Republicans on the VAB were on the majority side of the 4-3 vote on the draft House map and have been supportive of creating single-seat districts.
Vermont Democrats — who hold large majorities in the House and Senate — have charged the VAB’s Republicans and Progressives with promoting an increase in smaller, one-seat House districts as a means of enhancing their parties’ chances of winning future races.
Hingtgen rejected that notion and said his support for single-seat House districts is not politically motivated.
“As a former Progressive representative, I feel it is always better for the voters in a one-seat district because they get to choose the person based on meeting that person, rather than other factors,” such as mass-mailed campaign literature, Hingtgen said.
Minority opinions, he added, can often be diluted in larger, two-seat districts.
Hingtgen said it is the VAB’s job every 10 years to re-imagine legislative boundaries in a manner that makes them work better for constituents, rather than to simply crunch the latest federal census numbers and “Do as little as possible.”
The VAB will have to be productive as July 1 approaches: The panel must finalize its House map recommendation and pitch a Senate map.
As of Tuesday, Gossens did not anticipate any changes to Addison County’s two-seat senatorial district, which includes Brandon. The VAB’s major task in that regard, according to Gossens, will be sorting out Chittenden County’s massive six-seat district. Hingtgen said VAB research indicates Vermont is the only state in the union with a Senate district endowed with more than two seats.
“If Chittenden County is solved, I think Addison County and Brandon will be OK,” he said.
Gossens said the VAB could recommend that Chittenden County be divided into two three-seat districts or three two-seat districts. He noted that Lunderville and Roper have said they could support 30 one-seat senatorial districts, or possibly 15 two-seat districts.
Lunderville said creating 30 one-seat Senate districts would be consistent with the approach taken on the House map, allow constituents to be closer to their senator, and make it easier for candidates to campaign and raise funds.
“It would be like having a second House of Representatives,” Gossens said, countering that the larger districts allow senators to think more globally about issues.
“In the House, the goal should be to get (districts) as tight and intimate as we can get,” Hingtgen said. “In the Senate, we are looking for more broad, regional representation.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.