AUBURN — Following an executive session with their attorneys that lasted nearly two hours Wednesday evening, the Androscoggin County commissioners released a statement saying it would defend itself against a lawsuit filed by 12 of the 14 county municipalities.

The seven county commissioners voted unanimously to defend themselves “at county expense” against the lawsuit if the county’s insurance policy does not cover such a lawsuit.

Commissioners authorized the law firm of Skelton, Taintor & Abbott to defend them. The lawyers from the firm who sat in on the executive session were Bryan Dench, Amy Dieterich and Ron Lebel.   

The lawsuit contends that the county commissioners overstepped their powers in approving the county budget and voting in a higher salary and benefits for themselves than what was approved by the Budget Committee.

Because the new County Charter was increasing the number of commissioners from three to seven members, the Budget Committee voted to cut commissioners’ yearly salaries from $5,000 — the amount proposed by commissioners — to $3,000 and the chairman’s yearly salary from $5,500 to $3,500.

The three commissioners at the time — Beth Bell, Elaine Makas and Randall Greenwood — voted 2-0-1 (Greenwood abstaining) to reject the Budget Committee’s ruling and approved a yearly salary of $5,000, with an extra $500 for the chairman.

They also added an individual health benefit of approximately $8,400 per commissioner. The Budget Committee had eliminated all health insurance benefits.

In the 94-word statement, the commissioners said they were confident that they followed the County Charter in approving their own salaries and benefits.

“The Androscoggin County Commissioners are aware that several cities and towns in this county have filed a lawsuit to challenge the validity of the County Charter enacted by the voters,” according to the statement.

“The Commissioners regret that public resources are being expended on this unfortunate lawsuit but are confident that the County has carried out its business in full compliance with the terms of the Charter. The Charter itself is valid as the governing document for our County. The Commissioners will be reviewing the lawsuit with legal  counsel and will have no further comment at this time.”

After returning from the executive session, Commissioner Ronald Chicoine made the two motions about using county money and hiring the law firm of Skelton, Taintor & Abbott.

The executive session with the attorneys was the second of three held Wednesday during the commissioners’ meeting and workshop.

In the first session, lasting 34 minutes, the commissioners met with District Attorney Andrew Robinson and the county attorneys to discuss the possible consolidation of his office to a single location near District Court in Lewiston.

No decision was made and Greenwood said afterward that commissioners were still “considering all of their options.”

A workshop followed the regular meeting, when commissioners once again quickly moved back into executive session, this time to review job applications for the new county administrator position. 

Commissioners have received at least seven applications, Makas said.

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