Gossens to play role in reapportionment
SALISBURY — When former state Sen. Gerry Gossens retired from the Legislature six years ago, the Salisbury Democrat never imagined he would later have a hand in potentially reshaping the composition of the chamber he was leaving.
But he now finds himself in that position, as a member of the Vermont Apportionment Board (VAB), a seven-member panel that will redraw House and Senate district lines taking into consideration the new decennial census numbers and in a manner that is consistent with the Constitutional standard of one-person-one-vote.
Gossens was appointed by the Democratic Party, former Vermont Republican Committee Chairman Rob Roper was tapped by his party, and former Rep. Steve Hingtgen of Burlington was appointed by the Progressive Party. Gov. James Douglas was also allowed three appointments. He selected Republican (and former state Transportation Secretary) Neale Lunderville. St. Albans town Democrat Frank Cioffi and Progressive Meg Brook of South Burlington.
The VAB will be chaired by former Rep. Tom Little, a Shelburne Republican. Little was appointed by Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber.
“It’s a political appointment, but I don’t want to make it a political job,” said Gossens, who noted the Legislature will be able to reject or amend any reapportionment proposal the VAB delivers by its Aug. 15, 2011, deadline.
But avoiding politics will be easier said than done in a reapportionment exercise that could see House and Senate districts reshaped in a manner that could give one political party an advantage over another during the next decade’s elections. Ten years ago, Republicans controlled the Vermont House while Democrats held the majority in the Senate. Both chambers were ultimately able to agree on a reapportionment plan, but not after some fierce turf wars and accusations of political gerrymandering.
Bristol — a traditionally Republican-leaning town — lost its one-seat House district during the last reapportionment, as it was merged into a new two-seat district with Starksboro, Lincoln and Monkton. Democratic candidates have held those two seats ever since.
Controversial proposals to divide Cornwall among two separate House districts and to combine Lincoln into a district on the other side of the Green Mountains failed.
“It looks like it is going to be very, very interesting,” Gossens said of the reapportionment process, during which the VAB will visit multiple communities to hear citizen concerns and preferences.
In the meantime, Gossens and his colleagues will get a tutorial in the use of new computer software called “Maptitude,” which will allow users to scroll over a state map and instantly get the updated town-by-town census numbers. Those numbers won’t be ready until February, Gossens said.
“We are sort of in a holding pattern, then March, April and May will become very intense,” Gossens said.
The goal will be to get 30 equal Senate districts and 150 equal House districts, which will require the panel to recommend population additions to some districts and subtractions to others. It’s a notion bound to raise some concerns, and Gossens has already fielded some phone calls.
“People are really involved and exercised over reapportionment, and Chittenden County appears to be a hot button,” Gossens said. As the state’s most populous county, Chittenden is currently has six senators — 20 percent of the chamber’s composition. That has not set well with some voters and has made for a crowded ballot.
“There have been people who have suggested, ‘Why not divide it into two and have two districts with three senators each?’” Gossens noted. “But the Constitution says that the senatorial districts will be based on the county and that each senator is supposed to represent around 20,000 people. House districts are around 4,000 people.”
One of the cardinal rules of reapportionment, Gossens said, is to not split counties or towns. But there is one major, local exception to that rule: Brandon, a Rutland County town, has long been a part of the two-seat Addison County senatorial district. Political analyst Eric Davis of Cornwall believes there’s a chance that Brandon could return to the Rutland County fold based on some preliminary census numbers he’s been analyzing. He noted Vermont’s overall population apparently grew by around 3 percent between 2000 and 2009, with Chittenden, Grand Isle and Franklin counties seeing the biggest gains. On the other hand, Rutland County and the Northeast Kingdom saw some of the smallest growth.
“I think the numbers are such that Rutland County will need to have the population of Brandon in order to continue to have three senators,” said Davis, Middlebury College professor emeritus of political science.
But relocating Brandon would then create a domino effect of potentially reducing the Addison County senatorial district numbers to the point where it would have to pick up some additional population to maintain its two senators. The VAB might then have to look north to growing Chittenden County for a town or two to add to the Addison County mix. This would potentially tilt the Addison County senatorial district in a more Democrat-leaning direction, as Brandon voters have tended to vote more for GOP candidates while Chittenden County voters has been more left-leaning, Davis noted.
Addison County’s population was pegged at just under 36,000 following the 2000 census. Davis does not anticipate a major shake-up in the county’s House districts, based on preliminary census numbers.
Gossens is optimistic the VAB will get its work done on time and in a respectful manner. He called VAP Chairman Tom Little “very apolitical.”
“The battle will take place in the Legislature to get a bill passed,” Gossens said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].