Merger vote hinges on city process

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LEWISTON — While campaigns for and against the proposed merger of the Twin Cities are already competing for the public’s ear, officials in both cities agree that there’s work to do to make a November referendum a reality.

With just over six months until the Nov. 7 target, a name for the proposed city has yet to be chosen, a required consolidation agreement hasn’t been finalized, and public hearings in both cities have yet to be scheduled.

However, Chip Morrison, a member of the elected Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission, is positive the group’s timeline toward November is on the mark.

“I don’t think there’s anything now that would stop us from getting it all done,” he said Wednesday about the commission’s work ahead.

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The initial goal for the charter commission was to hold the vote in November 2016, but Morrison said simply, they “couldn’t get it all done.” But he’s optimistic for this year.

For the past three years, the group has been working toward its final product, a consolidation agreement with eight steps required under state law. The steps include a proposed name for the consolidated city and the new city charter.

They also include financial considerations such as each city’s property, debt, and terms for apportioning tax rates to pay off the remaining bonded debt in each city.

The state law on joint charter commissions was put in place in 1987, and has never been used.

Morrison believes the commission will complete its requirements by mid-June. The group is also planning to decide on the city’s name by then. It’s taking suggestions on its website. He said they’ve received hundreds of suggestions so far, some not printable.

“You get some nonsense, and you get some that are heartfelt,” he said.

Once the consolidation agreement is complete, Morrison said, each municipality is “duty-bound” to schedule one or more public hearings, and set the date for a referendum.

In Auburn, where some city officials have been outspoken against the merger, Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said he’d like to see multiple public hearings.

“Once we feel we have adequate public input, we’ll schedule the vote,” he said this week.

LaBonte said that with both cities in budget season, followed by the summer months, scheduling public hearings will be difficult. On top of that, he said, there are municipal elections in both cities.

“Perhaps they assume they can just run over both City Councils,” he said.

Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo said this week that she’s had a few conversations with commission members, and expects things will have to ramp up soon into the summer.

“It’ll have to kick into gear here,” she said.

Montejo said she’ll need the official ballot language no later than Labor Day in order to have ballots printed, and to have absentee ballots available 30 days prior to Election Day.

She’s also hoping the ballot language is simple, but she hadn’t seen anything yet.

During a meeting of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation on Wednesday, Auburn Councilor Bob Stone listed the work left to do for the charter commission.

“It’s no sure thing that this is going to be on the November ballot,” he said.

Asked whether he’d heard from city councilors with questions or concerns over the process, Morrison estimated that no elected official in Lewiston or Auburn has attended a Charter Commission meeting in more than a year.

Both cities have to adopt the measure by a majority vote for it to pass.

arice@sunjournal.com

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