In dissolving the Citizens’ Commission on Joint Lewiston-Auburn Cooperation last month, the Auburn City Council proved history is often less a march of progress than, in the words of historian Barbara Tuchman, a “march of folly.”

The commission, a successor to a similar joint commission appointed in 1996, was formed two years ago to recommend ways of restructuring and consolidating Auburn’s municipal departments and services with Lewiston’s to enhance efficiency and reduce expenses.

The commission’s first report in December 2007 projected $2.6 million in savings over the five years, offset by an upfront cost of $750,000 to upgrade software and equalize union salaries. A second report in January specifically recommended combining the cities’ assessing offices into one virtual office to save $140,000 per year.

On January 26, Auburn Mayor John Jenkins offered a resolution, passed by a vote of 5-2, to do away with the commission, rationalizing that, “It’s time for the councils in both cities to no longer hide behind a commission.” This occurred despite the fact the commission had not finished its work and was funded by a state grant good for another five months.

In supporting the decision, City Manager Glenn Aho damned the commission’s members with faint praise, calling them “good people” with a “good mission” who used an overly formal process that did not involve city administrators and residents enough.

He promised, nonetheless, to press forward with administrative restructuring in Auburn and to create a round-table style Innovative Solutions Commission to look into cooperative efforts with Lewiston and other municipalities.

Anyone who believes Auburn’s city councilors and senior staff are going to diligently push ahead with meaningful administrative reform should leave the porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa.

Bureaucracies are hard to create but even harder to reform, since over time, they focus more upon self-preservation than their original mission. After all, positions, status, titles and remuneration are threatened by change. Consolidation in Lewiston-Auburn, for instance, might lead to elimination of a number of department heads and one of two city managers.

More than 800 years ago, during the reign of English monarch Henry II, institutions of modern public administration began to form, born as offshoots of the royal household and gradually maturing into sophisticated bureaucracies. It was a lengthy, arduous process.

The Auburn council, however, has shown only one night is needed to reverse the course of governmental progress, at least along the banks of the Androscoggin.

Shaping and reshaping bureaucracy requires energy, vision, political courage and, most of all, determination. Henry II had these qualities in great measure. He was unusually well educated for his time, unconventional in his thinking, and relentless in pursuit of his goals.

Between 1154 and 1189, Henry established an administrative system to consolidate and rule the patchwork feudal baronies of his realm – Britain and western France – devising innovative methods and structures for tax collection, justice and law enforcement. To do so, he had to fight the opposition of feudal barons, who sought to usurp these functions from the crown and garner for themselves the power and revenues they generated.

A colorful monarch, Henry has been enshrined in literature, theater and cinema as the “Lion in Winter.” The Auburn council does not conjure up this image, however. Instead it brings to mind the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz, who roars loudly, but shrinks from the least sign of confrontation.

Comprised mainly of cranky, self-styled populists, who seem to consider government a conspiracy to pick taxpayers’ pockets, the council is not up to the task of administrative reform, even if such reform would result in the thing they hold most dear, keeping the lid on taxes. In short, they don’t want to buck the bureaucracy.

It’s an unfortunate time for a vacuum of political leadership, since need for change is acute.

The recession, heavy reliance on municipal real estate taxes, and shrinking federal and state assistance have created a budget crisis in virtually every town and city in Maine. As a result, sharing of services with other municipalities is an increasingly viable fiscal strategy. For similar reasons, the Legislature has acted to compel consolidation of school units to reduce costs.

There’s no reason to maintain separate police, fire, finance, assessing, public works, planning, code enforcement and recreation departments for Lewiston and Auburn, if mergers can lower costs by reducing procurement and personnel.

When Auburn and Lewiston were incorporated over 200 years ago, transportation was primitive and collaboration between the communities impractical. There wasn’t even a bridge linking the two until 1823.

Today the Twin Cities are interconnected by roads, bridges and communications networks, and share economic development, sewage treatment, bus service, the airport, watershed protection and emergency dispatch. Under similar fiscal pressures, both would gain by expanding consolidated or shared services for everything from filling potholes to fighting fires.

The citizen’s commission, a group of thoughtful and independent-minded citizens, did their homework and put forward practical recommendations to achieve this goal. They also wisely skirted controversial, divisive proposals like eliminating the cities’ separate corporate identities, consolidating schools, or laying off personnel (opting instead for reduction through attrition). Most important, their very existence served as a continuing goad to change.

Reforming bureaucracy is hard – just ask King Henry, who overcame stiff political resistance to achieve his ends. This same political resistance, coupled with bureaucractic inertia, stalled the commission and ultimately ended the commission’s existence, and unless overcome, will permanently block reform now that it is gone.

Elliott L. Epstein, a local attorney, is founder and board president of Museum L-A and an adjunct history instructor at Central Maine Community College. He can be reached at [email protected]

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