Mayoral candidate Jason Levesque, left, makes a point at the Auburn mayoral debate at Central Maine Community College on Wednesday evening as moderator Dawn Hartill and candidate Adam Lee listen.
AUBURN — During the only debate between the two candidates for mayor, Adam Lee and Jason Levesque clashed most when the conversation turned to the proposed Lewiston-Auburn merger.
Levesque, who is opposed to the consolidation, feels so strongly that he told the audience Wednesday at Central Maine Community College that if he’s elected, and the merger is approved by voters Nov. 7, he wouldn’t accept the seat.
“I would not serve as mayor of a dying city. I couldn’t do it,” he said.
Lee, a city councilor, said he will vote for the merger, but he asked residents to avoid choosing a candidate based on a single issue.
“If it fails, it’s over,” Lee said.
Throughout the hour-and-a-half debate moderated by Dawn Hartill, each candidate attempted to distinguish himself from his opponent. By the closing remarks, both said it was obvious there were “stark” differences.
The pair sparred over the merger, but also fielded a wide range of questions on Auburn issues, from property taxes and economic development to the role of the mayor in steering city policy and working with staff.
Clear style differences came forward. Levesque, owner of Argo Marketing in Lewiston, touted his business knowledge and views on operating the city as such; Auburn should be “holding the line” on expenses and needs to act now to lower property taxes.
Lee, a lawyer, told the audience that he understands the clear lines of responsibility dictated to the mayor by the city charter and he wouldn’t deviate from them.
“The city manager is the CEO; the mayor is the board president,” Lee said to Levesque at one point.
Lee has been campaigning to restore “trust and transparency” at Auburn Hall, telling the audience that he’d boost communication and limit executive sessions during City Council meetings, host meetings with residents and create neighborhood committees. He wants to be the liaison between city officials and the public, he said.
The candidates didn’t shy away from trading barbs.
Levesque responded that sitting councilors, including Lee, should be protesting the amount of time the council spends in executive session. Lee said he’s advocated for it, but is only one of seven councilors.
Asked what their immediate priorities would be upon sitting in office, Levesque said he’d focus on finding a way for the “merger discussion to go away” for good.
He also took a jab at Lee, saying “We committee things to death,” and ,”We can’t law things to death,” referring to Lee’s profession.
Lee said that Auburn Hall “is not a call center.”
Despite the personal and stylistic differences, both candidates focused heavily on economic development, but the candidates disagreed on how to get there.
Lee said the city needs to grow valuation and the easiest way is to create a more vibrant downtown district, attracting young people and “hip” businesses to places like the Engine House.
“Everybody has these glorious visions, but how do we do that?” Levesque asked, rebutting that Auburn should be marketing itself to people outside Auburn.
The pair also offered different takes on funding for the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council. Lee called Auburn’s decision to pull its funding “a mistake” that set the city back two years. But Levesque said the city was right to pull the plug after receiving “no return on our investment.”
They also took questions about how to address the city’s large agricultural zone, development near the city’s large recreational areas, a recent food sovereignty ordinance, and a perceived “disconnect” between Auburn school officials and Auburn residents.
Levesque said Superintendent Katy Grondin has been “less than honest” with parents about school funding and budget impacts.
“That’s not a good way to start a relationship,” Lee responded.
The candidates had been gearing up for the debate for weeks, and both said they had been talking with constituents about specific issues they may be asked about during Wednesday’s event.
Hartill kept the candidates focused as they continued to look for time for rebuttals. The debate was live-streamed by the Sun Journal, and taped for later broadcast on Great Falls TV.
Asked about the seemingly high turnover rate in the city manager’s office over the past five years, Lee offered: “Turnover happens when you don’t allow people to do their jobs and micromanage them every day.”
Levesque said that as someone who’s been on the council during that time, Lee was admitting he was partly responsible for that atmosphere.
When the conversation made its way back to the merger, Levesque first said he’d “do everything in my power to prevent (the merger) from happening” if he were elected at the same time the merger was approved.
But after Lee charged that Levesque’s comment meant “he would work against the will of the voters,” Levesque said he’d simply not accept the mayor’s seat.
Levesque told the crowd that there is already a “laundry list” of areas where the two cities are working together, but that the cities should also be “looking left and right” to their other neighbors.
“We need to broaden our scope, instead of looking inward,” he said.
Both said that regardless of what happens with the merger initiative, Auburn needs to attract and retain young people.
Answering another merger-related question, Levesque said, “We need to make sure it never rears its ugly head again,” and that the two cities will need considerable time to heal following the divisive campaigns.
“Saying we can only heal if my side wins is not a good way to heal,” Lee responded.
During closing statements, both said there were considerable differences between them. Levesque said they came from “different worlds.”
Lee said his opponent is asking voters to decide on the mayor based on a “two second” ballot decision in November, instead of what he could do for the city over the next two years. He said he believes in local government because it can bridge divides that state and federal politics can’t.
“I want to be the next mayor of Auburn, not the last mayor of Auburn,” Levesque said.