Robert Stone, left, of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, and Chip Morrison, representing One LA, present arguments against the proposed Lewiston-Auburn merger at a debate held in the Auburn Public Library on Monday night.
AUBURN — Robert Stone really doesn’t like the “Groundhog Day” jokes.
Used frequently by those in favor of merging Lewiston and Auburn, the movie reference suggests a stuck-in-the-mud mentality among those who oppose it.
“I think that’s a very unfair characterization,” said Stone, representing the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation. “We are not standing still. We are working very hard to improve both of these cities.”
Chip Morrison, meanwhile, is exasperated by the popular notion that those in support of the merger must be in it for personal gain. Combining as one big city, he insisted, is in the best interest of everyone who lives here.
“We are one community,” said Morrison, a member of the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission. “And we all know it.”
Morrison, representing One LA, told the audience that merging Lewiston and Auburn will bolster economic health and give the community more political clout in Augusta. It will attract more people to the area, Morrison said, and it will ultimately save the average taxpayer money.
Stone vehemently disagreed on all counts, suggesting that the pro-merger crowd tends to spew grandiose ideas without the facts to back them up.
“We’ve got to put emotion aside and concentrate on the facts,” Stone said.
For an hour and a half, an audience of nearly 200 listened with rapt attention as the two men argued back and forth.
Morrison accused the opponents of using scare tactics to influence voters. On the matter of how much it would cost to merge the cities, he accused them of outright fiction.
“Throughout the process,” Morrison said, “COLAC has taken figures out of a hat.”
Stone shot back that One LA hasn’t been above making things up — the idea that Lewiston and Auburn are constantly competing with each other, for example.
“Talk about pulling things out of the air,” Stone said. “It doesn’t happen. That’s a figment of imagination.”
Since the start, opponents of the merger have accused members of One LA of making flowery speeches about the benefits of consolidation while providing little to substantiate their claims.
Morrison on Monday night scoffed at that notion. Everything in their plan, he said, is there only after detailed studies conducted by some of the brightest consultants the nation has to offer.
“Our community has very much to gain,” he said. A combined Lewiston-Auburn, he insisted, would draw young people back to the area to work while attracting others looking to settle in Maine.
“We’ve got it all,” Morrison said. “I would love to sell this plan to anyone from away.”
From the start, Stone, an Auburn city councilor, described a merger plan fraught with problems for both cities. Auburn in particular, he said, might find itself overcome.
“COLAC is fighting for the independence of both cities,” Stone said. “The smaller city is in major danger of being taken over.”
As was the case at the earlier debate, the two men fielded questions posed by the Sun Journal, which is hosting the events, and from members of the public. The questions ranged from the benefits of having fewer city councilors to how the combined cities would handle repetitive street names.
In the end, Morrison, retired president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce and one-time Auburn city manager, assured them that everything that needs to be done is spelled out in the consolidation plan.
He also assured them that One LA has the best interest of the people in mind.
“I love these communities,” Morrison said, “but we can do better.”
In his closing remarks, Stone reiterated the opponents’ belief that merging would cause more problems than it solved. Most of One LA’s lofty ideas, he said, are just too uncertain to embrace.
“We just don’t believe that merging will be a silver bullet of economic growth,” Stone said.
The overwhelming majority of people in the audience for the debate were seniors and people of retirement age. And they were engaged: At one point, an older man in the front row scolded Stone for looking at Morrison instead of at the audience and for occasionally mumbling.
“We can’t hear you, Bob!” the man exclaimed.
“Turn around and face us!” snapped a woman to his left.
There were awkward moments, as well. Just as Stone was complaining about the “Groundhog Day” jokes, Morrison quipped that every time he hears the name COLAC, “I think of a medical procedure.”
At that, Stone threw up his arms in frustration. He would later assert that COLAC is owed an apology for the “Groundhog Day” cracks.
No such apology was forthcoming.
In the end, it was hard to tell how many minds were changed during the debate.
When it was over, a pair of women stood outside the library discussing how wonderful a combined Lewiston-Auburn would be. The debate, they said, had only enhanced their support for the move.
A man in his 50s, meanwhile, declared that he had always opposed the idea of a merger. The latest debate, he insisted, had only hardened his position.
“Why would we want people from the other side of the bridge telling us how to spend our tax money?” he said. “The talk from the pro-merger side is all rehashed and programmed. It’s the same speech every time. There’s never anything new.”