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Only Steps Forward: Merger of L-A is still hypothetical until commission finishes its work

By Jonathan P. LaBonte

Mayor of Auburn

“Do your job.”

Those three simple words have come to take on so much more meaning after they left the mouth of Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots. It was the rallying cry for the team, and it signified how important it was for each player and coach to focus on their responsibility and that task only.

And so, as we are now four years removed from the start of the petition drive for the commission to merge Auburn and Lewiston, we have to wonder what has taken so long to complete the process of a proposal.

In fact, after taking a year to collect signatures in both cities to force the creation of a merger commission, the group has met for nearly three years to complete the requirements under state law for a proposal to be submitted to the city councils. And we still wait for the work to be done.

Furthermore, the commission hosted a meeting three months ago to roll out a report that is not part of the requirements under state law for a merger commission, and it has not publicly offered further reports on their progress.

As the Mayor of Auburn watching this process, it’s becoming very concerning that the commission has yet to “do its job” and complete the document the Auburn City Council must receive before any public hearings of votes by our citizens are set. It has become confusing for the average voter as members of the commission have regularly, over the last three years, promised a set voting date for the merger, only to have those dates continue to slip by.

Of particular concern, in terms of roles and responsibilities, is that it isn’t the job of the merger commission to set the voting date. The only job assigned to them under state law is to provide documentation for the eight items listed in statute that I’ve highlighted in previous reports.

Why is it a concern? Well, for anyone not living under a rock, we now have two very active campaigns about the merger; one strongly for it and one strongly against it. Unfortunately, the for-and-against campaigns have nothing to be for or against because the commission has yet to finish its work.

As people opine in the daily newspaper and social media, it has turned into a host of hypotheticals because there is no final document that will be the basis for a referendum.

State law doesn’t set a time limitation for the merger commission to complete its work. If the commission wishes to take four years, five years, or 10 years, it is free to. What it can’t do is host the public hearings for the final documents or set the voting date.

Perhaps by attempting to influence outcomes of a vote by trying to choose the date, the group lost its focus on its core job. No time like the present to refocus.

With both cities fully into their budget processes, the merger documents will be unlikely to receive time for a public hearing this spring, which brings us to summer. There’s a reason that most budget processes strive to be finished by June. It is hard with summer schedules and vacations to keep everyone’s attention and bring people out to meetings on beautiful summer nights.

And without hearings in the summer, we are into fall. Unless there’s no intent, following a series of public hearings hosted by either city council, to consider changes to the documents, a vote this fall is highly improbable.

There will be much to say about the implications of a merger, but only once we actually see the documents that will be the basis for the vote. The commission is still free to alter where it believes city hall should be; it still needs to decide what name the new city will take on; and it must determine which changes can still be made to the city charter, or governing documents, that would guide and limit future councils and city managers.

Maybe we should encourage the commission to embrace another of Coach Belichick’s mantras, until its statutory obligations have been fulfilled, so we can finally move on to the public hearing process: “No days off.”

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