AUBURN — The City Council agreed Monday that public hearings on the potential merger of Lewiston and Auburn should be held as soon as possible, but questions swirled over what control the city has in shaping the referendum process.

During an Auburn council workshop Monday, Councilor James Pross questioned whether the Nov. 7 date is too rushed, and whether an off-year election is the best time to hold the merger referendum. He said last year, during a presidential election, would have been the best time for the vote. 

There were also differing interpretations of the state statute on mergers, a topic that could also come up when Lewiston discusses its hearings. 

“It’s all about interpretations,” Pross said regarding the statute. “What are our obligations under state law?” 

He added that “it seems like it’s within our discretion” as to when the city holds the merger referendum.

According to the statute, once the consolidation agreement — including the proposed city charter — has been submitted to the city councils in both municipalities, it shall then be submitted to voters in a municipal election. The statute does not clarify when.  

Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission member Chip Morrison said the commission will convene following the public hearings to discuss any proposed amendments to the merger documents. Depending on the amount of feedback, additional hearings could be scheduled, which could impact the overall timeline.

Following the discussion Monday, Auburn officials said they would work to come up with a suitable public hearing date, possibly at a larger venue than Auburn Hall. 

Councilor Adam Lee, among others, argued that the council should not try to push the vote to a later date. He said it was also a question that could be litigated. 

Councilors Leroy Walker and Bob Stone, both members of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, also pushed to hold the vote in November, following a hearing. 

They also said they’d like Auburn to schedule “one big public hearing.” 

“Some of us would like to see this in 2017,” Walker said about the referendum. “It’s the best we can do. If not, we can change it to 2077 or something like that.”

“The feedback I’m hearing is ‘let’s vote,'” Stone said. “People want to vote.” 

Councilor Grady Burns said, “It’s a legitimate outcome regardless of when it’s held,” adding that it would be an “overreach” of the council to push the vote to 2018. 

Pross also questioned whether Auburn should only hold one hearing on the merger, saying it is a “huge” issue with big consequences. 

The charter commission has been working toward its final set of documents for the past three years, which includes eight items required by state law. Among them are the proposed name for the consolidated city (Lewiston-Auburn) and 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.

Binders containing the documents were delivered to city officials in both cities last week, and Auburn was the first to discuss when to schedule its public hearing. 

Mayor Jonathan LaBonte told councilors that Monday was “not the night to discuss the merits of what you see in the documents.”

Stone suggested that two sections of the charter commission’s documents be struck from the discussion at the upcoming hearing, calling the sections “conjecture.” He was referring to sections E and F of the consolidation agreement — the commission’s “options and impacts” study and “recommendations and rationale” document — that lay out financial considerations. 

Most agreed that the entire document should be discussed during the upcoming hearings. 

“We’ve been at this a long time,” Morrison said. “We’d like very much to push (the vote) forward.”

The Auburn council will discuss setting the hearing at its next meeting, July 17. 

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To view the Joint Charter Commission’s documents on the proposed merger, click here

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