MIDDLEBURY — The state Senate will soon redraw its district boundaries as is required every 10 years after a federal census, and many Charlotte residents are panning a proposal that their town be absorbed into the Addison County senatorial district.
“I oppose this proposal because moving Charlotte into the Addison County senatorial district dilutes our — i.e., Charlotters’ — rights as voters,” said Charlotte resident Donna Spielman, who initiated a petition opposing the proposed Addison County and Charlotte district.
A seven-member Vermont Apportionment Board (VAB) was charged last year with redrawing House and Senate district lines to reflect the latest census numbers in a manner that is consistent with the Constitutional standard of “one person, one vote.”
Based on those numbers, each Vermont Senate district should have roughly 21,000 citizens per senator. One of the VAB’s biggest challenges in tackling the Senate map was reconciling a state population that has shifted to the northwest part of the state while responding to increasing citizen requests to fracture a Chittenden County district that has six senators — 20 percent of the total makeup of the state’s highest chamber.
The VAB ultimately recommended a solution it said would correct the population surge in Chittenden County while allowing Rutland County — which has seen a population decrease — to keep its three senators. The plan calls for Brandon to leave the Addison County senatorial district and re-join Rutland County, while Charlotte would be woven into the Addison County district.
Many Charlotte citizens and lawmakers are opposing the plan, however, arguing that the town’s school services, shopping interests and cultural amenities are oriented toward Chittenden County. Opponents of the switch — who have been testifying at Senate hearings and have mounted a petition drive — also said they are largely unaware of Addison County issues and do not have a relationship with local media or the county’s two state senators, Harold Giard, a Bridport Democrat, and Claire Ayer, an Addison Democrat who coincidentally grew up in Charlotte.
“As a town, we are very much turned to Chittenden County,” said resident Valerie Graham, who signed Spielman’s petition. “There is very little employment in town, so a huge majority of the residents work in Chittenden County.”
Graham said she and her neighbors have had little knowledge of Addison County issues and political candidates. Traffic in Charlotte tends to go north rather than south, she added.
Spielman said 181 people have signed her online petition and 40 have signed the petition in local stores.
Salisbury resident and former state Sen. Gerry Gossens was a member of the VAB and recalled testimony the panel received at hearings it convened throughout the state last year.
“In the case of Charlotte, we checked with the board of selectmen, and we asked for a semi-official response to this suggestion, and they came back and said they didn’t see any problem,” Gossens said. “We had two or three Chittenden County members on the board, all of whom said, ‘This makes sense.’”
Gossens reiterated that Rutland County needs Brandon’s population or it runs the risk of a court challenge of its right to maintain three senators.
But if Brandon returns to Rutland County, Addison County will need to replace that population from another source in order to maintain its two senators, Gossens explained. Charlotte, he said, seemed like the logical community for inclusion from population-heavy Chittenden County to the north.
“From a numbers of points of view, it works,” Gossens said. “From the point of view of some citizens and citizen groups, I am sure there will be some that will be very angry and some who will think it’s a pretty good idea. That’s not very unusual in trying to put together 150 House districts and 30 Senate districts. This was not done flippantly. We spent a lot of time on Chittenden County because there was a tremendous amount of pressure to break up that six-senator district.”
Sen. Jeanette White, a Democrat representing Windham County, chairs the Senate Committee on Reapportionment that has been taking testimony on reapportionment. She acknowledged the concerns voiced by Charlotte residents.
“We are trying to make as few changes as possible and still abide by the (reapportionment) deviation requirements,” White said.
She stressed late last week that it is not “inevitable” that Charlotte joins the Addison County senatorial district. She said the Chittenden and Franklin county delegations are working on alternative adjustments to the Senate map, set to be reviewed by the committee this week.
“There are parts of Charlotte that relate to Chittenden County and some parts that relate more to Ferrisburgh,” White said. “My goal is that this not be about who has the loudest voice, but in the end, to use our judgment about what makes the most sense.”
If you ask Rep. Mike Yantachka, D-Charlotte, he will tell you that leaving Charlotte in the Chittenden County senatorial district makes the most sense.
He said comments from his constituents have been running two-thirds in favor of maintaining the status quo.
“We sort of face Burlington, as opposed to Middlebury, as far as our interaction,” Yantachka said. “We have more cultural, economic and educational ties to the Burlington area and the communities to the north than … to the communities to the south of us.”
He noted Charlotte belongs to the Chittenden South Supervisory Union, and citizens primarily shop in Shelburne or South Burlington rather than in Vergennes and Middlebury.
“Going down to Middlebury gets to be a little bit of a hike,” Yantachka said.
He added Charlotters are familiar with all six of their current senators and recognize them as a formidable lobby or voting block when it comes to legislation they want passed in the Statehouse.
“Nothing against folks in Addison County, but for so many decades we have been oriented toward Chittenden County and most Charlotters would prefer to stay that way,” he said.
Yantachka acknowledged he has heard from some Charlotte farmers who are warm to the prospect of a political affiliation with Addison County and its rural, agricultural reputation. And proponents also note that Charlotte, like Addison County, has tended to vote Democrat for most of the past two decades.
Yantachka has had to disabuse some people of the misconception that Addison County would annex Charlotte, thereby changing its school system and regional planning affiliation, among other things.
“I had to tell them that, ‘No, no, all this affects is who you are going to vote for the state Senate,’” Yantachka said.
In the final analysis, Yantachka said Charlotters will strive to adapt to whatever Senate district map the Legislature adopts.
“My preference and the preference of most Charlotters, I believe, is to remain in the Chittenden County Senate district,” Yantachka said. “But it’s not going to be an earth shaking thing if the Senate does put Charlotte into the Addison Senate district.”
Sen. Tim Ashe, D-Burlington, is also a member of the Senate Committee on Reapportionment. He opposes the notion of moving Charlotte into the Addison County Senate district.
“To me, Charlotte has a natural relationship to Chittenden County,” Ashe said.
Ashe believes the Legislature could justify not making any changes to its Senate map based in part on Vermont’s geography and demographics. But if it has to make a change, Ashe believes the more fair alternative would be for the status of Charlotte (population 3,700) to remain unchanged and instead for Huntington and Buel’s Gore (combined population approximately 1,200) to move from the Chittenden to Addison County Senate district. This change would narrowly comply with the court’s population deviation threshold, Ashe said.
“It would have the effect of disadvantaging fewer people,” Ashe said.
Giard said he is more than happy to welcome Charlotte into the fold.
“I believe Charlotte would be an excellent fit for Addison County,” he said.
Giard and Ayer met with some Charlotte officials and residents last December to introduce themselves in the wake of the VAB report.
Ayer acknowledged the dissenting opinions on the proposed Charlotte move, though she added, “Someone has to move, because Chittenden County has gotten too big.”
Ayer said she will remain neutral on the issue until she hears all the facts and possible alternatives.
BRANDON LOOKS SOUTH
Meanwhile, there is no hue and cry in Brandon about the prospect of moving back into the Rutland County Senate district. Brandon’s regional planning is already oriented toward Rutland, as are many of the locals’ shopping tendencies. And Brandon has for many years leaned Republican in its voting, as has the rest of Rutland County.
Rep. Joe Acinapura, R-Brandon, said he hasn’t received any comments from constituents about the potential return of Brandon into the Rutland County Senate district. And he added Brandon’s political affiliation with Addison County has confused many residents over the years.
“Brandon has been like an orphan child, though both counties treat us well,” Acinapura said.
Acinapura himself has no problems with Brandon returning to the Rutland County Senate district.
“For our citizens, I think it would be easier for them to understand that the political environment and geographic environment are identical,” Acinapura said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]