HELENA - Members of the panel redrawing Montana's legislative district boundaries for the next decade couldn't agree Thursday who its chair should be, moving the decision to the Montana Supreme Court.
The panel's four appointed members - two Democrats and two Republicans - deadlocked 2-2 along party lines on every vote Thursday, rejecting six potential candidates for commission chair.
"Hopefully this is not setting the tone for this process, but I'm kind of worried that it is," Republican member Jon Bennion of Clancy said after the series of party-line votes by the Districting and Apportionment Commission. "We're not seeking any advantage here. We just want a level playing field."
The commission, whose work influences political control of the Montana Legislature for 10 years at a time, has long been an emotional flash point in Montana politics.
It redraws state House and Senate district boundaries every 10 years, adjusting those districts after the U.S. Census to ensure that each contains roughly the same number of citizens.
This current commission will draw boundaries that take effect in 2014.
State Republicans routinely refer to the 2000 commission's work as "the most partisan redistricting process" in state history, accusing Democrats of using a 3-2 majority on the panel to draw districts to their advantage.
Joe Lamson of Helena, a Democratic member of the current commission who also served on the 2000 panel, says the latter's results have been upheld in court and have accurately reflected the state's closely divided political makeup.
The panel's two Democrats on Thursday voted against all four of the Republican members' suggested chairs, including three political scientists on the faculty at Montana colleges. The Democrats also opposed another person who volunteered for the job: Bob Person of Helena, who headed the Legislature's nonpartisan research staff for 13 years before retiring in 2000.
Democrats submitted only a single nominee: Holly Kaleczyc of Helena, who runs a center for domestic-abuse victims and who has a lengthy background in Democratic Party politics. The panel's two Republicans voted against her.
The failure to agree on a fifth member, who will chair the politically pivotal commission and can be a key deciding vote, means a majority of the Montana Supreme Court will choose that person.
Bennion noted that the Supreme Court has chosen the commission's chair three times since the commission was established in 1972, and each time selected a Democrat.
"I think (Democrats on the panel) have looked at those odds and said, 'We feel pretty comfortable leaving it to the court,' " he said.
Lamson called Bennion's view "cynical," and said he's hopeful the commission can work together to draw districts that will lead to fair and accurate representation of Montana citizens.
"I would hope that we would build off our common interests," he said. "I am a little concerned that (Republicans) seem more interested in political posturing at this point, than in going the other way."
Lamson and the panel's other Democrat, attorney Pat Smith of Arlee, said Kaleczyc was the best choice as chair, because she has an ability and history of bringing together people of all political persuasions.
Linda Vaughey of Helena, the other Republican member, said she has "great respect" for Kalecyzc's work on community projects but noted that she has done much political work for Democrats.
"I can understand why you would like to have a Democrat as the third member, but I think what we really need is a level playing field," Bennion added.
The Republicans' nominees for the chair were political scientists Craig Wilson of Montana State University Billings and Jim Lopach and Jeff Greene of the University of Montana, and Joe Roberts, a lobbyist for the Montana Realtors Association.