Lewiston-Auburn Merger: Lewiston residents have their say

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City Councilors Shane Bouchard, Kristen Cloutier and Michael Lachance listen to James Howaniec, former mayor of Lewiston and current chairman of the Coalition to Oppose Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, during a public debate on the Twin Cities merger at Lewiston Middle School on Thursday.

LEWISTON — The way Paul Robinson sees it, the proposed merger of Lewiston and Auburn is an example of innovative thinking and he commends the people behind the idea.

He’s still inclined to vote against it, though.

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“Let me be extremely candid,” the 77-year-old Lewiston man said. “If I thought it would do any good, I would vote yes. I certainly applaud the vision.”

Claire Gauvin applauds the vision, too. So much so that the 75-year-old Lewiston woman has already made up her mind to vote for the merger.

“It’s time to grow as a community,” Gauvin said. “Let’s get together and be the best that we can be.”

The Lewiston City Council on Thursday night hosted a public hearing on the matter of the merger. As has been the case at earlier hearings, there were those who are passionately for the merger and those who are passionately against it.

There were some in the middle.

“I’m one of those who has flip-flopped a hundred times on this issue,” said Heidi Sawyer of Lewiston.

She can see lots of room for improvement in the way the communities are run, Sawyer said, “but I’m not sure a merger is necessarily how we’re going to get there.”

At the hearing, attended by roughly four dozen, citizens were allowed five minutes to state their cases. Some of the faces that appeared before the microphone were familiar – Gene Geiger from One LA had his say, for instance, as did Robert Reed, a vocal member of Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation.

Others were just ordinary citizens with opinions to share.

“The way I see things, Lewiston and Auburn are one community,” said Richard Grandmaison, of Lewiston. “We can do more together. We need to think outside of the box. This is a way to make improvements for all of the citizens of Lewiston-Auburn.”

A pregnant Gabrielle Russell of Lewiston stepped up to the front of the Lewiston Middle School auditorium and wondered aloud what the future would be like for her unborn child.

“What is my community going to look like in five years when my child is ready to start school?” Russell said.

And in 20 years? After the child has gone away to college?

“I don’t want to have to convince my kid to come back,” Russell said.

Like others, she believes that a merging of Lewiston and Auburn could result in the kind of vibrant and economically healthy super city that young people will want to come back to as they prepare to build their lives.

It’s a concept hit on by several people who spoke Thursday night, most of them parents or grandparents. Gauvin said her children went to school in Massachusetts and opted to stay there rather than return to the Twin Cities.

“They didn’t see any opportunities back here,” Gauvin said.

Geiger said studies have shown that 70 percent of young people who leave the Twin Cities don’t come back to live and work.

But Reed, for one, scoffed at the idea that merging the cities will be enough to keep young people in the community.

“Is the purpose of the merger to put up a wall around Lewiston-Auburn so they can’t leave?” he said. “What exactly is this magic pill that makes our economy better with a merger?”

The problem, Reed asserted, is that by creating a big, unified city to rival Portland, the people who come here to work, “are probably going to want Portland pay.”

Even a small bump in salaries, Reed said, would significantly cut into any municipal savings generated by a merger.

COLAC Chairman Jim Howaniec said there is also a misconception afloat that a merger is necessary to save Lewiston, a city he insists is well-run and on the rise.

“I’m just not as down on Lewiston as the pro-merger people seem to be,” Howaniec said. “I don’t think Lewiston needs some big, radical quick-fix like a merger … It’s the most underrated city in the state. This notion that we’re just a dying old mill town is just baloney.”

Several people, while offering their opinions on the merger, also noted the fact that while the hearing was hosted by the City Council, only three councilors showed up.

Ron Potvin, vice chairman of COLAC, noted that combining Lewiston and Auburn could result in one city with two different tax rates on either side of the river. He went on to deride the four councilors who were not in attendance.

“This is probably going to be the most important issue that the people of Lewiston will ever vote on,” Potvin said.

“It speaks volumes,” said Lewiston’s Pauline Gudas of the absent councilors.

In attendance Thursday night were Councilors Shane Bouchard, Kristen Cloutier and Michael Lachance.

The hearing lasted about an hour. Outside the Middle School, what most people did agree Thursday night is that the acrimony surrounding the merger debate is getting tiresome. The issue is confusing enough, several said, without the petty and often unrelated arguments that have sprung out of the debate.

“I think they sometimes attack for personal reasons,” Robinson said, “and that’s not right.”

“The ugliness, the hostility,” Gauvin agreed, “that needs to stop.”

Sawyer put it even more concisely.

“Politics,” she said, “gets yucky.”

Still to come:

• L-A merger debate hosted by the Sun Journal, 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 25, at the Auburn Public Library.

• The Sun Journal is still seeking questions from the public to be asked during the debate in Auburn. Send questions to Executive Editor Judy Meyer at jmeyer@sunjournal.com.

• A vote on the merger will take place in both cities on Nov. 7.

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