Former Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert Sr. speaks at a news conference of former Twin Cities mayors at the Lewiston-Auburn Chamber of Commerce in Lewiston on Friday morning in support of the One LA merger campaign. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — As the opposing merger campaigns have heated up in recent weeks, there’s been an increasing emphasis on where elected officials stand on the issue.

Candidates running for office in both cities have been asked for their takes, or have offered their positions. Recent mayoral debates have made clear how important the issue is to residents.

Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte has been perhaps the most outspoken current office-holder on the issue, but the anti-merger campaign also features former Lewiston mayor Jim Howaniec and two mayoral candidates in Lewiston: Shane Bouchard and Ron Potvin.

Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin, though not actively involved in the campaign, has said he is against the merger.

But on Friday, the pro-merger campaign One LA sought to change minds about support for the consolidation among officials.

At a news conference at the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, three former mayors spoke in support of the merger, and the campaign said 10 former mayors have announced support, as well as current Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald.

During the event, Larry Gilbert Sr., who served as Lewiston’s mayor from 2007-2012, said of the merger effort, “We have been cohabiting too long. It is high time for marriage and to propagate this One LA community.”

He continued, “I served the community in which I live for 30 years both as a police officer and as its mayor. I think I know how a community works and how it can work better.”

Gilbert was joined at the conference by John Orestis, Lewiston’s mayor from 1973-75, and Dick Gleason, the mayor of Auburn from 2009-11.

One LA volunteer Peter Garcia said the campaign decided to poll former mayors, and said of those they were able to reach, 10 were in favor. He said they wanted to rebut the argument that consolidation is being pushed by only a few former city officials.

“We decided to test whether the leaders in our communities share in that judgment, and we’re pleased to find that the answer is no, starting with the governor,” Garcia said.

Gov. Paul LePage has been outspoken in favor of the merger, and has been a routine talking point for both campaigns.

Of the former mayors included in One LA’s list of supporters, seven are from Lewiston and three are from Auburn. The list represents every Lewiston mayor dating back to 1998. The only Auburn mayors not included during those same years are John Jenkins (2007-09) and LaBonte.

Jenkins did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

Another former Auburn mayor and state senator, Peter Whitmore, has said he’s opposed to the merger, both during a public hearing in Auburn and in a letter to the Sun Journal.

Howaniec, chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, told the Sun Journal on Friday that he believes there are just as many former mayors, especially in Auburn, against the proposal.

“This is just another example of how this consolidation issue has continued to divide our community,” he said. “Auburn residents are already concerned about a takeover by the larger city and this just plays further into those fears.”

At the news conference, Orestis said he’s a taxpayer in both cities, and believes the merger will create an energy throughout the Twin Cities.

“To me, the strength of this consolidation would be bringing together the spirit of both cities, and creating an energy for growth, education, and that will keep our children here,” he said.

Gleason, who immediately preceded LaBonte in Auburn, said that to him, a combined Lewiston-Auburn is not a question of if, but when.

“Let’s make that when now,” he said.

The three former mayors in attendance were asked a series of questions about the merger, ranging from staff cuts to competition between the cities.

Asked how decisions would be made about which positions are cut while combining departments, Gilbert said they would mostly be made through attrition or retirements. However, Garcia said, the transition task force, during the 26-month transition process, would make recommendations upon which a new City Council would ultimately decide.

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