LEWISTON — The city is moving forward with establishing a charter review committee, which could be a precursor to an elected charter commission depending on its final recommendations.

The city charter requires Lewiston to appoint a review committee every 10 years in calendar years ending in one. However, the review committee is limited in the changes it can propose, and if the recommended changes are deemed by legal counsel to be “major” changes to Lewiston’s structure of government, then a full charter commission is required.

In either case, voters have the final say on any proposed changes.

The seven-member review committee will be appointed by Mayor Mark Cayer, and officials are asking members of the public to apply for the positions by Friday, March 12. According to a city memo, the review process is slated to take place between March and June, with a final report delivered to the City Council in July.

Based on the recommendations, if a charter commission isn’t needed, then voters will vote to approve any minor changes in November. But, according to City Administrator Denis D’Auteuil, if it is determined that a charter commission is needed, an election for commission members could be held in November instead.

During initial City Council discussions on the process in January, it was clear that several councilors had more substantial changes in mind, including staggered terms for elected officials, and doing away with Lewiston’s mayoral runoff format.

D’Auteuil said Monday that it’s still too early to guess whether a full commission will be needed.

“At this point, we need to allow the charter review committee to be established and for the review work to be accomplished,” he said. “Once the City Council receives the recommendations from the (review committee) we will then be able to determine if a charter commission is needed.”

But, he said, a number of proposals previously discussed by councilors “would result in the need for a charter commission to be formed.”

At least three councilors said they would be in favor of staggered terms and moving to a ranked-choice system for the mayoral election, rather than using the current runoff format.

In Lewiston, if a single mayoral candidate does not receive a plurality of votes, a runoff election between the top two candidates is held a month later. A runoff election was required for the 2015 and 2017 elections.

Councilor Alicia Rea said Lewiston voters have already voted twice in favor of using ranked-choice voting in statewide elections, and that turnout for the runoff election is always a concern. She said it might not be a popular opinion, but that “it’s worth considering.”

Councilors Luke Jensen and Safiya Khalid also said they would be in favor of a charter commission in order to consider using ranked-choice voting and staggered terms.

“I also agree that it makes way more sense to have ranked-choice voting in Lewiston rather than having an additional election,” Jensen said.

During the January workshop, D’Auteuil said the city will seek legal opinions throughout process to determine whether any proposed changes are deemed “major” or minor.

Officials in Auburn began a similar process in late 2020, but stuck with a charter review committee rather than opting for a charter commission. An initial proposal to move to staggered terms for councilors was nixed after the city attorney said it would meet the definition of a “substantial change” to the charter. In Auburn, the charter review process is assessed once every 15 years.

In Lewiston and Auburn, all elected positions are up for re-election at the same time every two years. Initiating staggered terms, on the City Council for example, would allow for roughly half of councilors to remain on the council during an election year, thus eliminating the chance for an entirely new council every two years.

According to a Lewiston news release, applicants for the charter review committee should “have a background in or understanding of city government and its operations.”

“The charge of the committee is to undertake a comprehensive review of the current charter and recommend to the City Council any amendments to improve the operations of city government,” the release said.

Lewiston residents who are interested in applying can contact the City Clerk’s office at 513-3124. Application forms are also available on the city’s website at www.lewistonmaine.gov/boardservice. Completed applications should be submitted to the clerk’s office. The committee meeting times and other logistics are still to be determined.

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