Politics

Snelling resigns to take environmental post

Gov. Shumlin appointed former Sen. Helen Riehle, right, to replace Sen. Diane Snelling. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger
Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed former Sen. Helen Riehle, right, to replace Sen. Diane Snelling. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

Sen. Diane Snelling announced Tuesday her resignation from the Senate to take a key state environmental job.

Gov. Peter Shumlin picked former state Sen. Helen Riehle to replace Snelling.

Riehle is expected to be sworn in tomorrow. She said she will not run in November.

Snelling, the only Republican in the six-seat Chittenden County delegation, will be taking the job as chair of the Natural Resources Board, which oversees the regional commissions that rule on Act 250 development applications.

In addition to administering the Act 250 program, the Natural Resources Board issues rules and policies related to Act 250 and is in charge of enforcement of the state’s development review law. The board may also participate as a party to appeals in Act 250 cases that go to the state environmental court.

“Her deep policy knowledge of Act 250, as well as her well-deserved reputation for being thoughtful and non-partisan make her an ideal candidate for this position,” Shumlin said in announcing Snelling’s appointment.

The 64-year-old Snelling has served in the Senate since she was appointed to replace her mother, Barbara, in 2002. A resident of Hinesburg, she has been a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

Snelling replaces Jon Groveman as chair of the Natural Resources Board. Groveman took a position earlier this year with the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

“For me, it’s the appeal of Act 250, which is a process I think has helped Vermont incredibly over the last years in terms of managing for development that maintains the landscape that we love,” Snelling said after the appointment was announced.

“It’s pretty darn exciting,” Snelling said.

Riehle, 65, chair of the South Burlington City Council, said she was not interested in seeking the seat in November and was simply a placeholder until the end of the session. She said she was too busy with her council duties and enjoying retirement to plunge into a race.

Riehle, a Republican, served in the Senate from 1992 to 2000 and in the Vermont House from 1983 to 1992, coinciding with much of Shumlin’s tenure in the House and as the leader of the Senate.

“It was an honor when Peter called me,” Riehle said, joking, “At first when he said: ‘It’s your favorite governor,’ I thought: is this (New Jersey Gov.) Chris Christie calling me?”

“I couldn’t say no, it’s really quite an honor,” she said.

Shumlin bypassed the usual selection process of asking county committees to come up with possible replacements for Snelling, instead making a direct appointment.

The governor said it was critical to fill the seat immediately, particularly given the Senate is already down to 29 members with the suspension of Sen. Norman McAllister, R-Franklin.

The announcement by Snelling, and Riehle’s decision to not seek the seat in November, will leave a rare case where two seats not held by incumbents will be up for grabs. Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, is running for lieutenant governor.

Political analyst Eric Davis called the appointment a “shrewd move” by Shumlin.

“He takes one of the few Republicans who can be considered to have a safe Senate seat out of the equation, and forces the GOP to scramble, just two months before the filing deadline, to recruit a candidate who could run a competitive race in Chittenden County in a presidential year and try to hold on to one Chittenden Senate seat for the GOP,” said Davis, a retired Middlebury College political science professor.

“This represents a distraction from Republicans’ focus on gaining more seats in the House in November, because it forces the GOP to spend more money on the most expensive Senate race in the state,” Davis said.

Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Windsor, applauded the appointment of Snelling to the Natural Resources Board and welcomed back Riehle.

“I cannot think of a better choice by the governor and I know that Diane will bring her years of experience on the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy to the board,” Campbell said.

Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz praised the selection, too.

“We’re really pleased that Diane agreed to step up. She has this long history on these kinds of issues … and really understands the importance of Act 250 in our environmental legacy and our future,” Markowitz said.

Markowitz said Groveman had “rebooted” the relationship between the board and the district commissions and had focused efforts on helping commission members be better trained.

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  • Eric Davis

    This is also a shrewd political move on Shumlin’s part. He takes one of the few Republicans who can be considered to have a safe Senate seat out of the equation, and forces the GOP to scramble, just two months before the filing deadline, to recruit a candidate who could run a competitive race in Chittenden County in a presidential year and try to hold on to one Chittenden Senate seat for the GOP. This represents a distraction from Republicans’ focus on gaining more seats in the House in November, because it forces the GOP to spend more money on the most expensive Senate race in the state.

    Meanwhile, with new Sen. Riehle not being a candidate, there will be two Chittenden Senate open seats for ambitious Democrats – the Snelling/Riehle seat and the Zuckerman seat.

    • Tom Pelham

      The appointment also removes the one Republican from the seven person Senate Appropriations Committee. Not that one Republican provides balance, but any replacement, whether Republican or not, will have missed the first three months of testimony on budget matters and therefore at a disadvantage to substantively contribute to Committee deliberations.

      • Annette Smith

        Sen. Snelling was also the only Republican on the four-member Natural Resources and Energy Committee. She voted, along with Sen. John Rodgers, to ban wind, an amendment that the three other Ds did not support. I can’t blame her for wanting to leave the Senate.

  • Chris Roy

    The inequity of the Chittenden mega-district again reveals itself. Democrats need only retain a 51% majority of electorate in order to theoretically hold all 6 seats. Such at-large mega-districts were a favored tool of whites looking to marginalize African Americans in the South, and aren’t allowed under the Voting Rights Act for that reason. Since Vermont Republicans aren’t a protected class under the Act, however, the Democrats are free to use the same discriminatory and inequitable technique to stack the electoral deck. It would be easy to create Senate districts across Vermont with only two or three members everywhere. In Chittenden County, if Colchester were included, Burlington could have 2 Senators, the northern suburbs could have 3, and the southern suburbs could have 2. Such districts would be equitable and equivalent, bringing voters closer to their Senators. Of course, such a fair apportionment would likely end the Democrats’ stranglehold in the county, so we continue with the discriminatory mega-district instead.

    • Charles Merriman

      As always, Chris, your thoughts are principled even as they are strongly conservative. (Insert smile.) My only substantive response is that you focus too heavily on party politics, as does Eric Davis (but then that is the way he makes his bread). A pox on both their houses, I say. The challenge, for smart guys like you, should be to distain this sort of school yard bickering, gut the power of the parties, and encourage Vermont voters to vote the candidate instead.

      • Chris Roy

        Well, how’s it going Charlie?! As long as apportionment remains a partisan process, it’s what we’re stuck with. Personally, I’d be happy if state and federal legislative apportionment were performed with software that is available to draw fair and equivalent district lines without regard for incumbent protection or gerrymandering. Hope springs eternal.

      • robert bristow-johnson

        listen, i know that Chris and i disagree about a lot of stuff. i remember his “consign IRV to the trash heap of history” commentary. (i agree that IRV screwed up in BTV in 2009, but the solution to the problem is a better ranked-ballot method and i doubt Chris would differentiate between IRV and Condorcet since the ballots are virtually identical.) but Chris is sorta right about the Chittenden “mega-district”.

        there is no other legislative district in the United States with as many at large legislators as the 6-member Chittenden senate district. the ballot allows for voting for as many candidates as 6, but does not allow one to rank candidates. so, if you’re not sure about 3 or 4 or 5 of the candidates, or you really want to elect a particular candidate you support, you end up bullet voting. i know, some folks will just punch the party line, but that’s not how Diane got elected.

        so the problem with a mega-district with many at-large candidates is that the race is a big clusterf**k. it ain’t just Dems vs. GOP vs. Progs. it’s Dems vs Dems and GOP vs. GOP. friends ain’t exactly friends. i know for sure, in the Chittenden Dem race, because it was widely accepted that Diane was going to win, the 6 Dems were playing musical chairs for the 5 seats remaining. they were running against each other. voters wonder how to vote the most effectively. does one vote for their 2nd choice? for their 3rd choice? what if their second or third choice ends up beating their first choice to be elected?

        Chris would not agree, but it’s in big mega-districts like this that ranked-choice voting is most necessary, to relieve voters of the burden of tactical voting and to relieve candidates of strategic campaigning against people they would normally be allied with.

        in addition, it could end up geographically lopsided. there are senators both north and south in the Chittenden district, but Hinesburg and BTV are the only towns in Vermont with two state senators each. two outa thirty. shouldn’t be surprizing for BTV but Hinesburg is a lot smaller. (looks like this fall Hinesburg’s likely to get none.)

    • Bruce S. Post

      Chris, what an important comment. I live in Essex, and even though I am a pretty active individual in some policy circles and know a few of the Chittenden senators, I feel very underrepresented because my vote is diluted in the vast electoral ocean of the Chittenden Senate district. I have found the delegation, overall, to not be very responsive to messages I have sent. Tim Ashe has been the only one to generally send a reply.

      From what I understand, Chittenden senators have worked a side deal with the Northeast Kingdom senators during the decennial reapportionments so that the NEK would retain a seat it may have lost in exchange for the NEK’s support to preserve the six-member Chittenden district.

      This is an excerpt from the report of the most recent reapportionment commission, chaired by Tom Little:

      “During the winter and spring of 2011, the Board received correspondence that included public sentiment about multi-member districts mainly favorable to the breaking up of the Chittenden district. These constituents believe that the time and financial costs of campaigning in the Chittenden district hinder candidates for office. Other correspondence voiced concern about the prevalence of bullet voting and other forms of tactical voting that occurs in multi-member districts. The Board received no correspondence recommending retention of the current Chittenden district.

      Some have questioned the constitutionality of a six-member district. The Vermont Constitution and statutes are silent on this, and no court has ruled on the issue. Chapter II, § 18 of the Constitution (and subsequent court cases) suggest that – in addition to the mathematical standard – county lines should be preserved when creating districts. The multi-member districts over the years have typically met those requirements.

      In the end, the Board determined that breaking the Chittenden district into smaller districts has merit, and at least ought to be squarely raised as a proposal to the Senate for due consideration.”

      I cannot remember if Tom commented that someone could legitimately challenge this. I certainly feel like an aggrieved party but I don’t have the resources to initiate a suit.

  • Gary Murdock

    “Shumlin bypassed the usual selection process of asking county committees to come up with possible replacements for Snelling, instead making a direct appointment.”

    Is anyone really surprised by this? Always expect the worse from this governor and you’ll never, ever be disappointed.

    • Carmen Borden

      Gary – It makes complete sense. Helen is pragmatic and would vote the same way that Diane would. More importantly, with the fact that the Legislature only has a few weeks left and the chamber is already down 1 vote because of the Franklin County debacle — Helen would be a logical choice. It was a good move for Chittenden County and a good move politically. Also – I guarantee you that Phil Scott or Bruce Lisman would do the same thing and if you disagree then I have some land in the Kingdom I would be happy to sell you.

      • Jessie McIndoe

        What is good for Chittenden County is never good for the rest of Vermont. You should rethink your uninformed opinion of Phil Scott. Also, the land in the Northeast Kingdom is cherished by the people who live there and protect it, so it is clear you have no land there to sell.

  • I want to take this out of the partisan political arena — Senator Snelling has been a real asset to the Senate and the environmental community. It has always been good to work with her in that capacity. I wish her well and congratulate her on this appointment.

  • robert bristow-johnson

    whoa! that opens up the Chittenden race a bit. might be room for both David Scherr and Debbie Ingram. less musical chairs.

    • Carmen Borden

      I plan on voting for both Debbie and David in this upcoming election. I think they will make incredible additions to the Senate. I also supported Diane every year she ran for the Senate as I always believed her pragmatism was what the chamber needed. She will do a great job on the Board.

      • robert bristow-johnson

        hey Carmen, wear your “-6” (or whatever negative score this becomes) as a badge of honor around these parts.

  • Nancy Tracy

    Helen Riehle is the best choice to be working with the rest of the Senators. It is not only the quickest, best move with little time left, Helen is an experienced former Senator and is bright!
    Congratulations to Diane Snelling! Her patience and common sense will be missed in the Senate. We know she will lead well in her new position for all Vermonters.