An emerging political alliance between Republicans and Progressives is making the wonky work of the Legislative Apportionment Board — the panel charged with redrawing the state’s House and Senate districts — one of the most-watched efforts in Montpelier. Democrats are so worried that House Speaker Shap Smith is raising concerns about “political chicanery.”
Every 10 years, state law mandates that legislative districts undergo analysis  based on the U.S. Census data. Some districts shrink and others expand as the population shifts. A new map must be approved before the end of the next legislative session in order to be in effect for the 2012 fall elections.
The panel came together last November . Each of Vermont’s three political parties appointed someone; Gov. Jim Douglas did the same, selecting a panelist from each camp. Chief Justice Paul Reiber chose the chair, or “special master.” The result? Two Democrats, two Republicans, two Progressives and a former GOP lawmaker are tasked with balancing voter representation among 150 House reps and 30 Senate members. That works out to 4172 voters per rep; 20,858 per senator.
Progressives Meg Brook and Steve Hingtgen, along with Republicans Neale Lunderville and Rob Roper, are increasingly supportive of a plan to reduce the number of two-member House districts from 42 to six. They want to increase the number of one-person House districts from 66 to 138.
A competing plan that will be unveiled at the board’s meeting this Thursday has the support of the panel’s two Democrats — Frank Cioffi and Gerry Gossens — and Chairman Tom Little would leave existing district lines mostly intact, with slight tweaks where the population has shifted significantly. Previous reapportionment boards have taken the same approach.
You could argue that the results have benefited Democrats, who now hold a “super majority” in the House and Senate. Last time around, reapportionment cost the Burlington Progressives two House seats. Republicans went from having a majority in the House to a 47-member minority.
Is this political payback?
“I approached this from the perspective of electoral reform. I believe single-seat districts are inherently better. They are more intimate between voters and representatives,” said Hingtgen, a former Burlington rep who ran for lieutenant governor. “They are also less expensive to campaign in, thereby leveling the playing field between candidates.”
As a former Republican Party chairman, Roper concurs. In fact, he’d like to see 150 single-member districts. “It should ideally be one person, one vote, one rep,” said Roper. “It also makes it easier for people to run and draw a contrast when there is just one candidate.”
But if it breaks towns apart and pits incumbents against one another, the House’s top Democrat is opposed.
“I really don’t want to see a plan that comes to the legislature and is immediately shunted aside as a fantasy project,” said Speaker Smith. His Morristown House seat could be merged with neighboring Johnson — a move Smith opposes.
In other locales, incumbents could wind up running against a fellow rep if the single-member-district plan prevails. Those include Democratic Reps. Lucy Leriche and Peter Peltz in Hardwick and Woodbury; Democratic Reps. Jason Lorber and Rachel Weston in Burlington; and GOP Reps. Don Turner and Ron Hubert in Milton.
“I would have no problem declaring something dead on arrival if there is evidence of political chicanery,” Smith said.
Hingtgen said he has purposely ignored incumbent issues as the single-member-district map has evolved.
“We shouldn’t really be thinking about incumbents, but the voters,” he said.
Gossens told “Fair Game” he believes supporters of single-member districts are playing politics with the map, especially since the message is clear that lawmakers prefer the status quo.
“If they are doing it just to embarrass the legislature, then I don’t know why we’re putting in all of this time and effort,” said Gossens. “I’m not hearing a great outcry from voters that the current system is unfair, so I think we have to be careful of being paternalistic and trying to protect the voters from themselves.”
Lunderville said the board shouldn’t shy away from making changes just because other players in the process don’t like it.
“I was interested in taking a fresh look at the map, especially given that the last map was developed 10 years ago, and that was based largely on the map from 10 years before, and so on dating back to the original map,” said Lunderville. A final proposed map must be delivered to the legislature by August 1.
Little, who drove around the state to get a personal feel for each legislative district, warned the panel’s members might not reach consensus.
“If we can’t agree on one plan,” Little noted, “then ultimately we’ll take some votes and see where the chips fall.”
The panel must settle on one of them by July 1 so local boards of civil authority can have a chance to weigh in.
Progressives can thank Democrat Gaye Symington and current State Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D/W-Washington) for their seats at the reapportionment table.
Symington’s third-place gubernatorial finish in 2008  forced lawmakers to rewrite the law governing the composition of the reapportionment board. Before 2008, the board only included members of “major parties” whose gubernatorial candidates received at least 25 percent of the vote in the election preceding the decennial census.
In 2008 Symington earned only 21.7 percent of the vote, a hair behind Pollina, an independent at the time, who finished with 21.8 percent. Only Republican Jim Douglas earned more than 25 percent of the vote — 53.4 percent, to be exact.
Due to Symington’s poor showing, the Democrat-led legislature changed the law so Dems wouldn’t be left out of the reapportionment process. They changed the criterion from gubernatorial percentages to party presence in the legislature.
Now a party gets a seat at the reapportionment table if it has at least three lawmakers serving from different counties, in three out of the five sessions following the most recent census.
Yes, Virginia, elections do have consequences.
House redistricting is contentious, but the panel has yet to tackle the equally challenging Senate map . Chittenden County’s population has grown almost enough to warrant a seventh senator.
To avoid adding a senator, or splitting the county into smaller districts, one or more towns may be given to neighboring counties.
The board has discussed moving Hinesburg or Charlotte to Addison County’s senate district. That might pose a problem, since incumbent Sen. Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden) lives in Hinesburg. Another idea is to add Milton to the current Chittenden-Grand Isle Senate district, which is all of Grand Isle County and Colchester. With Milton, the district could qualify for two senators, up from its current one: Sen. Richard Mazza, a Democrat.
Which county is likely to lose a senator?
Odds are it would be Rutland, which is losing population and soon might not have enough people to justify its current stable of three senators.
A handful of top Vermont GOP contenders met recently to talk about how to improve the party’s prospects in 2012.
GOP chairwoman Pat McDonald and executive director Tayt Brooks held a closed-door meeting with Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin), Auditor Tom Salmon, Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon and former Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, as well as current Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and former lite-gov candidate Mark Snelling.
Dubie wasn’t in town, so he participated by phone.
No one claimed a particular race. McDonald said the goal was to get these high-profile candidates to discuss their own plans, and use their star power to recruit additional candidates.
“Obviously we have a lot to discuss and coordinate, and I think everyone agreed that this was just the very first discussion,” said McDonald.
As “Fair Game” noted last week , Dubie is considering a 2012 run. “There is some interest in running,” he said. “I’ve served, I ran a campaign, and I’m interested in serving in some capacity.”
Salmon, who is considering a bid for governor, U.S. Senate or reelection, told “Fair Game” the meeting was helpful.
“Exactly what I expected,” he said. “Filling the dance card in light pencil.”
An internal review  by the University of Vermont found “no irregularities” regarding either the research work or dissertation written by a top university official who was involved in an unusual, six-year relationship with UVM President Dan Fogel’s wife, Rachel Kahn-Fogel.
UVM trustees launched the investigation after Seven Days made official inquiries about Kahn-Fogel’s influence over the doctoral studies and day-to-day employment of Michael Schultz, the school’s associate vice president for development and alumni relations.
UVM found Schultz’s doctoral files to be “in order and unremarkable,” according to Provost Jane Knodell. She unveiled the report at a special meeting of the trustees’ executive committee last week. UVM might want to consult some of the findings in Schultz’s thesis, aptly titled “Elucidating the Role of the University CEO’s Spouse in Development, Alumni Relations and Fund Raising,” before hiring the next CEO.
The remainder of UVM’s investigation  into Kahn-Fogel’s actions is underway, according to UVM spokesman Enrique Corredera. The university is still interested in finding out whether Kahn-Fogel violated any UVM workplace policies or if UVM funds were misspent.
“We want the rest of the review completed as soon as is feasible, but at the same time we want to make sure that it is done thoroughly and properly,” said Corredera. “So it may take weeks and not days.”