GARDINER — The city is seeking a legal opinion on whether the city followed proper procedure when it joined the Kennebec Regional Development Authority 15 years ago following a unanimous vote from city councilors Wednesday night to spend up to $1,000 for legal advice.

The authority is the governing body of FirstPark, the regional business park in Oakland that has sustained a net loss of around $5 million for 24 central Maine communities over the last 15 years.

The question has emerged as a campaign issue for George Trask, a former city councilor trying to unseat Mayor Thomas Harnett in November. Bryan Blanchard, the husband of a city council candidate, also raised it at an Oct. 7 candidates forum and at budget discussions earlier this year.

City Manager Scott Morelli said the city’s attorney likely won’t have an opinion back by the council’s next meeting in two weeks, but he expects it well before the end of the year. The city will ask law firm Eaton Peabody to review whether Gardiner joined correctly and if not, what options it has to leave the authority.

Trask told councilors Wednesday night he thinks the legislation establishing the authority makes it clear that a city-wide referendum vote was necessary to join the development authority, not a City Council vote as Gardiner did. He said the city should bring the issue directly to court because the city uses the same law firm it previously consulted in 2008 about that issue.

At that time, the city’s attorney advised the city if there was an error in how the city joined the development authority, it’s unlikely the courts would invalidate the city’s membership. The city would likely still have to pay the outstanding debt obligations already incurred, according to the city counsel.

“Don’t count on a lawyer, any of them,” Trask said Wednesday. “What I’m saying is let the judge make the decision. The lawyer is not the decision maker.”

Trask is critical of the development authority because the city of Gardiner has lost about $300,000 on its investment as of last year.

The Maine Legislature created the development authority in 1998 to establish a regional business park to finance and promote economic development in the region. The bill states that the decision to join needed to be “approved at referendum by cities, towns or plantations.”

Craig Nelson, the president of the authority and its legal counsel, has said Gardiner didn’t need a referendum because it has a city council, according to emails to city officials. The Gardiner City Council vote is all that was legally required to become a member of the authority and to authorize the revenue sharing agreement between Gardiner and the town of Oakland, according to Nelson. The city clerk at the time also certified that the process required by the law took place, Nelson wrote to Morelli. The development authority and the other communities relied on the certification when it took on the debt, so Gardiner is legally prevented from leaving those obligations, according to Nelson.

The two municipalities with city council governments — Gardiner and Waterville — joined the development authority with council votes. Augusta, the other city to consider joining, turned it down in a city-wide referendum.

Waterville City Manager Mike Roy, who helped rally support from communities as town manager of Oakland at the time, said the question has never been raised in Waterville.

“In our case, the City Council back then clearly would have been the governing body to approve participation in the authority,” he said. “It certainly was a council decision back then and would be today based on our form of government.”

The founders of the partnership took care to ensure every community that joined did so properly, Roy said, because the group needed to secure communities with a total state property valuation of at least $3 billion before the law could go into effect. He said the group wouldn’t have proceeded with the project and taken on the debt if it wasn’t sure the communities joined correctly.

“There’s no way we would have done that,” Roy said.


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