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Redistricting proposal would alter local House districts

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Posted on June 20, 2011 |
By John Flowers



MONTPELIER — The Vermont Apportionment Board (VAB) has drafted a controversial new map that re-draws several Addison County House districts and even splits one local town — Monkton.

The new map, which will set the boundaries for House districts that will be contested in the 2012 election, must be endorsed by the Legislature before it becomes law.

The seven-member VAB was charged late last year with redrawing House and Senate district lines to reflect the 2010 census numbers in a manner that is consistent with the Constitutional standard of “one person, one vote.”

Former state Sen. Gerry Gossens, a Salisbury Democrat, was one of three political party appointees to the VAB, which is chaired by former Rep. Tom Little, R-Shelburne. Little was appointed by Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber.

Other political appointees on the panel include former Vermont Republican Committee Chairman Rob Roper; and former Rep. Steve Hingtgen, a Burlington progressive.

Republican James Douglas, who was governor at the time, was also allowed three appointments. He selected Republican (and former state Transportation Secretary) Neale Lunderville, St. Albans Democrat Frank Cioffi and Progressive Meg Brook of South Burlington.

The committee began its work last November, pouring over new federal census numbers and plugging them into new computer software called “Maptitude.” The Maptitude program allows users to scroll over a state map and instantly get the updated town-by-town census numbers and shift them around to produce different House district variations.

Gossens explained the VAB set out with the goal of allotting 4,173 residents per state representative, and not deviate from that number by more than 7 percent. That figure was arrived at by dividing Vermont’s 2010 population total (625,741) by the number of House districts (150). The challenge for the VAB was refiguring those districts to reflect new demographic trends that show a population boost in northern Vermont and a decrease in the southern part of the state.

“When you do that, you have to ripple out to a number of towns and often change things around,” Gossens said.

And the committee did make changes — too many, according to Gossens, who was on the short end of a recent 4-3 VAB vote endorsing a new map that would eliminate almost all of Vermont’s current 42 two-member house districts and create a total of 138 single-member districts. The House is currently comprised of 108 districts, 66 of which are represented by one-person.

Here is how the new map would affect Addison County:

•     Addison-1, the Middlebury district, would remain untouched as one of only six remaining two-seat House districts in the state.

•     Addison-2 would lose Hancock, and would be left with the five towns of Leicester, Salisbury, Ripton, Goshen and Cornwall. Hancock would be tossed into a district with Granville, Bethel and Rochester.

•     Addison-3 would cease as a two-seat district, its five towns (Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Addison, Panton and Waltham) dispersed into parts of three other districts. One of those districts would consist of Vergennes, Waltham and Panton. Another district would include Ferrisburgh and the western half of a fractured Monkton. The third district would include Addison, New Haven and Weybridge.

Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, said that while shrinking her district might allow for more face-to-face meetings with constituents and local boards, it would separate communities that have been well served as a group with a shared school system and common issues.

“My initial feeling (about the plan) is a sense of loss, because I have represented Addison and Ferrisburgh for three years.”

•     Addison-4 (Bristol, Monkton, Starksboro and Lincoln) would cease to be a two-seat district. Bristol would revert to a single-seat district unto itself (as it was prior to the 2000 census). Meanwhile, Lincoln, Starksboro and the eastern half of Monkton would form another one-seat district.

Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, said that while he sees merits in having more single-member districts, he does not support the notion of dividing the town of Monkton. He noted Bristol officials endorsed the Addison-4 two-seat district 10 years ago during the last reapportionment process in order to keep Monkton intact.

It is a priority that Sharpe said deserves ongoing support.

“I think splitting Monkton is a non-starter,” said Sharpe. “I will fight to keep Monkton whole.”

•     Addison-5 (Bridport, New Haven and Weybridge) would also change. Bridport would join an Orwell, Shoreham and Whiting House district. As previously mentioned, New Haven and Weybridge would join with Addison.

•     Addison-Rutland-1 (Orwell, Shoreham, Whiting and Benson) would lose Benson and gain Bridport.

•     The Rutland-7 district comprised only of Brandon would expand to also include Sudbury and Pittsford.

The proposed map subdivides around 30 communities in the state, including Fayston, Swanton, Montpelier, Barre Town, Barre City and Shelburne.

PLAYING POLITICS

Gossens, among others, is concerned about the single-districts map and believes its proponents — the two Progressives and two of the Republicans on the VAB — are advancing it in part as a means of increasing their respective parties’ numbers on the House.

He reasoned that it is often easier for a minority party candidate to win an election in a single-seat district. For example, Republican candidates historically had overwhelming success in Bristol prior to that town joining the larger Addison-4.

“They all have an agenda, and the agenda is to win more seats for their party,” Gossens said. “Traditionally, our job on this board is to try not to be political. The politics takes place in the House and Senate.”

Gossens and Little fashioned a counter-proposal map that preserved much of the status quo, corrected population deviations of the past 10 years, and required the division of only two communities — Eden and Milton.

The Gossens-Little map also kept the current Addison County House districts largely intact.

“I wanted to do something that did the least damage, or made the least changes to the current districts that we could, on the supposition that people are comfortable with the districts they live in, by and large,” Gossens said.

In the end, however, the Gossens-Little proposal failed to get enough support from other members of the board. The map will still be sent to the Boards of Civil Authority as an informal alternative, according to Gossens.

“I got a lot of questions, but I knew that it was a lost cause, because the Progressives — and to my mind, surprisingly, the two Republicans — had decided they wanted this single-district system statewide,” Gossens said.

NEXT STEPS

The single-districts plan will be sent out to affected towns’ boards of civil authority by July 1. Those boards must provide their feedback by Aug. 1. The VAB must deliver its final draft map to the House clerk by Aug. 15.

Gossens hopes the VAB makes some major changes to the current product, which he believes it is not likely to gain much support in the House, where Democrats hold a super-majority. Democrats also control the Senate and the governor’s office.

“I believe it is wrong, with the months we’ve spent and the money we’ve spent, to submit a plan that we know will not be acceptable and probably won’t even be taken seriously,” Gossens said.

House Speaker Shap Smith, a Morristown Democrat whose district would also be affected by the single-districts map, agreed that the current version needs some work, but noted that the plan is in the early stages of a process in which he expects to see significant changes.

“I think the goal is noble to see if you can have one-person districts throughout the state, although that is not what is in statute as the guiding principal,” Smith said during an interview with the Addison Independent. “My biggest concern when I’m looking at the map is that they are splitting up a lot of towns and they are ignoring county boundaries and the common interests that the towns within the current districts have.”

If those issues aren’t addressed, Smith predicted “tough sledding for the current plan once it gets to the Legislature.” If a plan advances to the Legislature that is defeated, the Legislature would send it to committee where the plan could be tweaked or a whole new plan (such as the Little-Gossens alternative map) could be considered and put up for legislative approval.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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