AUBURN — A civil lawsuit filed against the Androscoggin County Commission will proceed after a superior court found certain claims made by the suing cities and towns of Androscoggin County have sufficient merit to go to trial.

The court ruled, however, that the case will proceed only against the County Commission as a legislative body, not against individual commissioners.

In July 2015, Androscoggin County towns — Lewiston, Auburn, Poland, Lisbon, Turner, Durham, Greene, Sabattus, Minot, Leeds, Livermore Falls and Mechanic Falls — filed suit against the commission and commissioners, claiming commissioners improperly set their own salaries and benefits in violation of both county charter and state law. That complaint was amended a month later, alleging commissioners unjustly enriched themselves by increasing their compensation and breaching their fiduciary duty to taxpayers regarding spending.

The claims stem from commissioners’ actions in 2014, setting their yearly salaries at $5,000 and $5,550 for the chairwoman, which is $2,000 more per commissioner than approved by the county Budget Committee.

Commissioners also restored their health benefits, valued at $8,400 annually, after the Budget Committee eliminated them.

In his ruling filed with the Androscoggin County Superior Court this week, Justice Lance Walker denied the county’s assertions that the towns never stated a specific claim of wrongdoing and that the towns don’t have standing to sue the commission. The court also denied the county’s claim that the suit was filed too late to be heard.

As to standing, Walker ruled that because the municipalities “allegedly provide 80 percent of the funding for the county’s budget,” they have a “sufficiently substantial interest” in ensuring that the commissioners follow proper procedure for approving the budget, including their salaries and benefits. He repeated that logic in upholding the towns’ right to claim commissioners “unjustly enriched” themselves by raising their pay and benefits.

In commissioners’ favor, Walker ruled that the commissioners acted as a legislative body when deciding salaries and benefits, making them immune from the towns’ claims for damages under the Maine Tort Claims Act. They cannot be sued individually.

In a news release issued on Thursday by the towns’ attorney, Peter Brann, Budget Committee Chairman Emily Darby praised the ruling, saying “the court ruled in favor of the municipalities on all the issues they care about.” She also noted the Budget Committee was pleased the court found the municipalities’ claims “have sufficient merit to proceed.”

On Thursday, county attorney Bryan Dench also praised Walker’s ruling, saying, “I’m really very pleased that the judge has dismissed the claims against the individuals, which was really punitive and vindictive, and we thought that was very wrong.”

The county is being represented by Dench, Ron Lebel and Amy Dieterich.

In November 2015, voters amended the county charter, banning commissioners from increasing their salaries or benefits without the approval of a “majority plus one” of the full Budget Committee. At the time, the County Commission viewed that as a resolution to the dispute with the towns, and pushed for dismissal of the case, particularly since the towns did not differ with the county on the wording and intent of that amendment.

But, Dench said, “the municipalities have hung on by their fingernails at this point, and it is by no means the end of the case.”

Dench and Budget Committee member Mike Lachance, who is also a Lewiston city councilor, both said they hoped the parties might settle the case.

“Since the Commissioners refused to discuss settlement while their motions were pending, we’re hopeful the court’s action today moves us closer to resolving this dispute,” Lachance said. “Our municipalities still hope to resolve this issue quickly and inexpensively, and now that the court has affirmed the merit of our claims, we would also hope that the Commissioners will finally choose to come to the table. That door remains open, as it has from day one.”

Dench noted that voter action in November 2015, making the authority of the Budget Committee definitive, means that action and expenditures in dispute are limited to commissioners’ salaries and benefits from the fall of 2014 to the fall of 2015.

That spending totals $6,000 in disputed salaries and $25,200 in benefits. As of October 2015, the county had spent more than $44,000 to defend itself. The towns had spent about $15,000 and estimated they would spend another $20,000 to resolve the suit.

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Disclaimer: Bryan Dench represents the Sun Media Group.


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