AUBURN — When Auburn eyed whether it could adopt staggered terms for elected officials without going through a cumbersome charter commission process, its attorney had a simple answer: no.

But Lewiston, which is discussing the same idea, has a different take.

Lewiston’s leaders may agree after a hearing Tuesday evening to put the idea of staggered terms on the election ballot in November as a simple amendment to its charter. If voters agreed to the change, not every council member would be elected in the same year and no charter commission would be needed.

What makes the approach different in each municipality is whether leaders think that changing the charter terms governing elections for municipal office is a significant revision or not. Auburn says it is while Lewiston, so far, has said it is not.

As a result, Auburn’s charter review process recommended merely some technical changes to bring the charter into compliance with state law about the hiring and firing of its school superintendent — a proposal that will be on the ballot Nov. 2 in Auburn.

Lewiston, though, is discussing weightier issues, including staggered terms, reducing the length of service for Planning Board members and allowing council members to retain their seats if they move to another district with less than a year to go in their term.


Auburn’s legal adviser, Michael Malloy, wrote in early August to Auburn City Manager Phil Crowell that he reviewed the staggered terms issue again after learning that Lewiston took a different stance than his in the wake of a Portland court case that addressed the issue broadly.

After that review, Malloy said, he still believes Auburn “made the right call” when it said adopting staggered terms would be a significant change that would trigger the need for a charter commission.

He said the decision rendered in a Portland case involving a citizen-initiated petition to require public funding of municipal candidacies offers no clear-cut guidance on the staggered terms issue.

Malloy said, “it certainly gives us something to hang our hat on” if officials wanted to press on with staggered terms without requiring a charter commission. The success of that option “is hardly a sure bet.”

Malloy added that issues involved in charter changes are “an evolving area of Maine law” and his advice is based on calculating the risks involved.

He said if Auburn opted to proceed with the idea anyway, its council “should lay an appropriate foundation by adopting written findings and conclusions that explain its reasoning as to why staggered terms are a mere amendment that do not fundamentally alter the structure of Auburn’s government.”


That would help, he said, “to guard against future appeals” of the move should anyone challenge it in court.

In Lewiston, former longtime City Administrator Ed Barrett pushed for staggered terms in a charter review process this year.

He argued that having everyone up for election every two years has led in recent years to “significant turnover,” which has raised concerns “regarding continuity and the potential for a largely newly elected governing body facing the challenge of the annual budget process shortly after taking office.”

The Charter Review Committee endorsed two-year terms with annual elections so some officials would be on the ballot one year and others in the next. It added, though, that four-year terms with biennial elections “would also be workable” and that in its view, both options could be done without a charter commission.

If staggered terms are considered a significant change to the charter, they could only be done on the recommendation of a charter commission, a process voters would have to initiate. They would then elect charter commission members, as Portland did this summer, who would have the power to consider any revisions to the charter.

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