June 6, 2011, Burlington Free Press, Nancy Remsen
Bolton Town Clerk Deb LaRiviere wasn't surprised to learn that her community could find itself in a new legislative district because the U.S. Census showed too many people now live in the two-seat House district made up of Bolton, Jericho and Underhill.
The district would exceed the 2010 standard for a two-member district by 10.3 percent. The ideal size for a district electing one member to the Vermont House of Representatives is 4,172 people, and 8,344 for a two-member district. The new population tally for Bolton, Jericho and Underhill is 9,207 -- 860 over the standard.
"We knew this was going to happen," LaRiviere said.
What has town election officials like LaRiviere on edge is the uncertainty about how the Legislative Apportionment Board and ultimately the Legislature will redraw the House district map to eliminate double-digit deviations such as that for the Bolton, Jericho, Underhill district. The apportionment board is charged with suggesting House and Senate redistricting proposals to the Legislature.
One draft map of new House districts that the apportionment board has considered shows Bolton in a single-member district with Huntington and a portion of Waterbury.
LaRiviere said it was too soon to react. At least, she said, the proposal didn't split the town. A decade ago, lawmakers considered putting West Bolton with Jericho and Underhill and the rest of the town with Waterbury.
The apportionment board must complete a preliminary proposal for all House districts by July 1 so local boards of civil authority have a month to review and comment before the apportionment panel decides on a final plan.
With July 1 fast approaching, the seven-member panel has yet to settle on a strategy for drawing its preliminary map. Two competing strategies are in play.
Gerry Gossens, a Democrat from Salisbury, favors the "practical" approach, which he says means starting with the existing House districts. "I think our job is to look at where the problems are and fix them."
Meg Brook, a Progressive from South Burlington, says the board should shoot for ideal districts, which she argues are blocks of roughly 4,172 voters who would elect a single member of the House. "I fundamentally believe single districts allow for a more accessible democratic process."
Brook and Steve Hingtgen, a Progressive from Montpelier, sketched out single-member House districts across the state and the board has been working from this map for several weeks.
"The reason the single-seat plan has moved forward is that it has gained support," Hingtgen said.
"It is a worthwhile exercise," Rob Roper, a Republican from Stowe, said. As former chairman of the Vermont Republican Party charged with trying to recruit candidates for House races, Roper said he found two-member districts challenging. People hesitated to challenge sitting representatives, he said. "There is a weird incumbent protection dynamic."
Neale Lunderville, a Republican from South Burlington, also supports exploring the single-member plan. "It give us the opportunity to look at all of the districts with new eyes," he said. "We shouldn't be bound to change as little as possible."
Frank Cioffi, a Democrat from St. Albans, called the single-district map "an interesting academic exercise, but I don't think it will sit well with the boards of civil authority or the House of Representatives."
"I'm not hearing a groundswell from Vermonters that they are dissatisfied with the current configuration of legislative districts," Cioffi said. He added, "I would like to see us deliver something the House would appreciate, that has a chance of being accepted."
Hingtgen said before he makes up his mind, he wants to compare the single district configuration with a map making minimal changes to existing districts. Gossens is trying to develop that map for the board's meeting this week.
Tom Little, a Republican from Shelburne who serves as special master or chairman of the board, returns from an out-of-state trip this week to try to lead the divided panel toward consensus in the coming weeks.
The draft map of single-member House districts would mean big changes for many voters and little change for others.
The Essex, Essex Junction and Williston House districts, for example, would each be divided in half since they are currently two member districts.
Burlington has long been a mix of single and double-member districts, so creating nine or 10 single districts would likely mean a whole new configuration.
Milton would be split in thirds. Town Clerk John Cushing sees extra costs for three sets of ballots and worries about voter confusion over new, arbitrary districts lines. He questions the need to change the town's two-member district. "If it worked for 10 years, why wouldn't it work for another 10 years?"
By contrast, South Burlington has long had single-member districts within its borders, so the only line changes would come as a result of population spurts.
Gossens argues that mandating single-member districts would divide towns that are comfortable with two-seat configuration. "Don't chop up districts for the sake of chopping them up," he told his colleagues on the board last week.
Brook counters that many larger communities, such as her city of South Burlington, are split into multiple House districts. If it works in these towns, she asks why not work toward creating single-member districts statewide?
"What is the value of a two-seat district?" Hingtgen asks. "I see it as having problems." He cited the less intimate relationship between residents and their representatives. He noted, too, "when you have a larger district, minority voices become less valuable. The smaller the district, the strong the voice of the minority."
Board members may be struggling to agree on the basis to begin mapping House districts, but they agree that whatever approach they choose will hit snags.
Mountains, governmental boundaries, orientation of commerce and lack of transportation links all pose challenges to creating mathematically precise districts.
"I had no idea of the complexity of this when I started," Gossens said.
Vermont law says, "The representative and senate districts shall be formed consistent with the following policies insofar as practicable:
• Preservation of existing political subdivision lines.
• Recognition and maintenance of patterns of geography, social interaction, trade, political ties and community of interest.
• Use of compact and contiguous territory.
Missing from the list that guides the board's work is incumbency. The panel has discussed, but not examined how the single-district map would impact incumbent legislators. They seem to agree that their work won't be guided by where sitting legislators live.
"The boards of civil authority can consider incumbency," Roper said. "The Legislature can and will. We can, but we don't have to. Maybe we shouldn't. We should come up with the most equitable plan under every other criteria."