Aside from Gardiner, at least three other communities — including Waterville — may not have joined the Kennebec Regional Development Authority correctly.

It’s not clear if Gardiner will take any action after learning from its attorney Wednesday that it didn’t join correctly 15 years ago, or if there are ramifications for the rest of the 24 central Maine communities in the group, which is the governing body of Oakland regional business park FirstPark.

Officials from the other communities that are possibly affected said Thursday they’re not concerned about the issue, including Waterville City Manager Michael Roy, who was town manager of Oakland when the park formed and said he believes all communities joined correctly.

Gardiner, Waterville, Winslow and Pittsfield joined the KRDA in 1999 with council votes, an action Gardiner’s attorney, Jonathan Pottle, said didn’t follow the state law that established the authority.

Gardiner instead should have held a referendum to decide whether to join the regional development group and to appoint representatives to the authority’s general assembly, the attorney wrote in his findings released Wednesday night.

FirstPark was built with the hopes of providing thousands of jobs to central Maine. It has yet to hit its original targets with current job totals in the several hundreds, and the communities have lost around $5 million on the investment over the last 15 years.

Waterville, the only other city in the group, joined with a City Council vote. Roy said he doesn’t think the authority would have been allowed to take on the debt if there were questions about the membership of some communities.

Roy said Thursday that the city has no plans to look into the issue of whether it joined correctly.

He said T-Mobile, the park’s only major tenant, created 850 jobs when it opened a call center in 2006. Although there are closer to 600 jobs at the call center now, he said, the park is still the region’s best hope for attracting jobs.

“I haven’t given up on that vision,” Roy said, “and I want to say this to the people that have joined the anti-FirstPark bandwagon: Name one project in central Maine that has brought in 850 jobs to central Maine. There isn’t one.”

In Winslow, the Town Council voted to join the group, according to Town Manager Michael Heavener, but he said the issue of whether the town joined correctly has never been raised.

“At this point, I don’t know why we would be concerned,” Heavener said.

Pittsfield also approved becoming a member of KRDA with a Town Council vote, according to Kennebec Journal archives. Town Manager Kathryn Ruth couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

The attorney for the development authority told Gardiner in October that the city didn’t need a referendum because it has a city council, according to emails from the attorney, Craig Nelson, to city officials.

The city clerk at the time also certified that the process required by the law took place, Nelson wrote to City Manager Scott Morelli in October. 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, Nelson said.

Brad Jackson, executive director of KRDA and FirstPark, referred questions about the legal opinion to Nelson, the authority’s attorney and president of its executive board. Jackson, who started in the job a little over a year ago, said he hopes the 24 communities appreciate his efforts.

Nelson, reached by email, said he didn’t have time to answer questions Thursday.

The issue of whether Gardiner correctly joined the authority has been raised a couple of times over the years. Councilors decided in October to seek a legal opinion after a couple of former city councilors, George Trask and Bryan Blanchard, raised the issue several times at public forums this year.

Gardiner councilors discussed the legal opinion for the first time Wednesday night in executive session. In the regular council meeting, Mayor Thomas Harnett said the councilors needed more time to consider the issue before taking any public action. The council’s next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 3.

Another attorney with the city’s law firm, Eaton Peabody, told the previous city manager in 2008 that if there was an error in how the city joined the development authority, it’s unlikely the courts would invalidate the city’s membership and let the city off the hook for the outstanding debts already incurred.

Staff writer Amy Calder contributed to this report.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @paul_koenig


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