LEWISTON – Opponents of a rain fee intend to sue the City Council to force the city to let them circulate a petition door-to-door.
City Councilor Stavros Mendros said Tuesday night he was surprised by the suit, even though he was listed as one of the plaintiffs in a draft sent to the city attorney earlier Tuesday.
“I agree with the idea of letting the petition out of City Hall, but I’m not supposed to be a part of the suit,” Mendros said. “I would have sent out a press release directly if I’d known I was going to be involved.”
Mendros said he discussed the suit with Rumford attorney Seth Carey last fall but did not know it was going to be filed.
“I actually suggested they do something in November,” Mendros said.
He told his City Council colleagues that he had asked the attorney to remove his name from the suit.
“I agree that the petition should be released,” Mendros said. “But I don’t want to be part of a lawsuit against my city.”
The draft sent to the city names Mendros and petition founder David Hughes as plaintiffs.
Attorney Carey, contacted Tuesday night, said Mendros’ name would be removed. Carey said the complaint will be filed at Androscoggin County Superior Court. He sent copies to City Attorney Martin Eisenstein Tuesday, in advance of the actual filing.
But Mendros’ involvement didn’t sit well with other councilors.
“You are obviously involved in this, and I’m not very pleased with that,” said City Councilor Normand Rousseau.
Up to voters?
Meanwhile City Administrator Jim Bennett said it could take a vote of Lewiston residents to unravel the confusing language governing petitioning to challenge city actions.
“The way it looks, based on my research, is that this is something only the voters can fix,” Bennett said.
State laws say only voters can change city rules regarding petitions for initiatives, according to Bennett. That trumps anything else in the City Charter or municipal ordinances.
“I envision having councilors write some amendments to the city’s ordinances that get passed to the voters in November,” Bennett said.
The controversy stems from an attempt to put the city’s rain fee before voters. Councilors adopted the fee last June as a way to trim property tax bills. A group of 10 opponents started a petition in November aimed at forcing a vote on the fee. According to city ordinances, such petitions must be kept at the City Clerk’s office. The opponents balked, saying they had the right to take the petition door-to-door. The petition’s deadline finally passed with only 232 signatures, far short of the 1,000 needed to force a vote.