AUBURN — Claiming that it did nothing improper in adopting the county budget, the Androscoggin County Commission is seeking dismissal of the lawsuit brought against it by most of the county municipalities.
The commission is also asking for sanctions against the municipalities and attorney Peter Brann for filing the lawsuit.
“This lawsuit is totally political and baseless,” Commission Chairwoman Beth Bell said in a statement. “It has been orchestrated by Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett, who has sold a bill of goods to the other towns. It is the biggest waste of taxpayer money I have ever seen.”
Barrett has led the fight against the commissioners.
The lawsuit, filed July 21 by 12 of the 14 municipalities in Androscoggin County and amended Aug. 5, contends that the county commissioners overstepped their powers in approving the county budget and voting in higher salaries and benefits for themselves than what was approved by the Budget Committee.
It asks for the return of all salaries and benefits not approved by the Budget Committee.
The amended suit also seeks to deny the commissioners from having the county pay for their legal bills.
At issue is who has final authority over the county budget — the commissioners or the Budget Committee.
“It is ironic in the extreme to be sued by the cities of Lewiston and Auburn for setting our own salaries, which they say is a conflict of interest, when both the Lewiston and Auburn City Councils set their own salaries under their charters,” Bell said.
The 20-page motion to dismiss was filed Wednesday in Androscoggin County Superior Court by attorney Ronald Lebel. Attorneys Bryan Dench and Amy Dieterich are also defending the commissioners.
The motion includes 15 supporting public documents, including the original and amended versions of the county charter, minutes from several county commission meetings and a resolve adopted by the state Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage directing the commissioners to amend the original charter.
Voters in Androscoggin County approved the county charter on Nov. 6, 2012, by a vote of 27,838 to 19,354. According to the motion to dismiss, the county discovered soon after the vote “that the document approved by the voters contained numerous errors, inconsistencies and omissions.”
To correct those, the commissioners sought a legislative fix with the resolve approved by the Legislature and Gov. LePage on June 21, 2013. Among the changes were having the Budget Committee approve the final proposed budget and submit it to the commissioners, who would then vote to modify and then adopt the final version.
Because the new charter increased the number of commissioners from three to seven members, commissioners proposed reducing their yearly salaries from $7,200 to $5,000 and from $8,292 to $5,500 for the chairman.
That wasn’t enough for the Budget Committee, who cut the salaries down to $3,000 and $3,500, respectively, and eliminated all health benefits.
The three commissioners at the time were Bell, Elaine Makas and Randall Greenwood. The vote was 2-0-1, with Greenwood abstaining, to reject the Budget Committee’s ruling and approved a yearly salary of $5,000, with an extra $500 for the chairman and individual health benefits of approximately $8,400 per commissioner.
Bell, Makas and Greenwood are still county commissioners. The four new members are Ronald Chicoine, Sally Christner, Alfreda Fournier and Matthew Roy. All seven are named in the suit.
“This fight over salaries amounts to a dispute over $2,000 per year for seven commissioners and a $500 per year compensation for the chair, a total of $14,500, on a county budget of over $10 million,” Bell said. “Don’t the taxpayers of Lewiston and Auburn have better things to do with their money than spend tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers fighting about a fraction of that cost?”
Commissioners’ compensation is also part of the dispute. With individual coverage at approximately $8,400 per year for each commissioner, that amounts to another $58,800.
The 12 communities that joined the original lawsuit are Lewiston, Auburn, Poland, Lisbon, Turner, Durham, Greene, Sabattus, Minot, Leeds, Livermore Falls and Mechanic Falls. Last week, Livermore voted to join the lawsuit.
The only county municipality that is not suing the county is Wales.
“We didn’t ask for this fight, but the commissioners did nothing illegal or improper and we intend to vigorously defend the county and the commissioners from these claims and seek sanctions against those who brought them. Enough is enough,” Bell said.