GARDINER — City councilors won’t be discussing a FirstPark legal opinion, which concludes that the city joined the regional development group incorrectly 15 years ago, in a public meeting until at least January.

Councilors discussed the issue with the city attorney, Eaton Peabody’s Jonathan Pottle, in executive session Wednesday night for the second time. They previously met with Pottle in executive session at their Nov. 19 meeting, when the city released the legal memo to the public.

Instead of a council vote in 1999 to join the Kennebec Regional Development Authority, the city should have held a referendum vote to decide whether to join and to appoint representatives to the authority’s general assembly, the attorney wrote in his review of the state law that established the authority.

City Manager Scott Morelli said the public work session on the legal matter won’t be scheduled until the next City Council convenes next year, possibly during a January meeting.

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.

Tax revenue is returned to the towns and cities each year, but the most the Kennebec and Somerset County communities have received is the roughly 40 percent that’s been returned to them in recent years. As of last year, Gardiner had lost more than $300,000 on the investment.

Although job totals in the park hover around several hundred and not the several thousand originally projected, it has scored a recent victory for the region, attracting a Montreal company that makes fleet management systems for cement companies.

Gardiner isn’t alone in joining the development authority with a council vote. Waterville, Winslow and Pittsfield also joined the same way. Officials from those communities haven’t said they have any plans to look into the issue themselves.

Craig Nelson, attorney for the development authority and one of its founders, told Gardiner officials in October that the city didn’t need a referendum because it has a city council.

The city clerk also certified that the process required by the state law took place, which is what the group relied on when it took on the debt to build the park, Nelson said.

When reached by phone Wednesday, Nelson said it’s up to Gardiner to decide whether it wants to take any action.

“That’s their business,” Nelson said. “We’ve got our business to tend to and our purpose and mission to carry out, and we’ll continue to do that to the best of our abilities.”

Nelson said that all he knows is that Gardiner certified that it had done the process correctly 15 years ago when it joined the development authority and signed off on a revenue-sharing agreement with the town of Oakland.

Nelson said he doesn’t know of any plans from the KRDA general assembly or executive committee to discuss the issue at any upcoming meetings.

Previous councilors have brought up the issue in the past, but the city hadn’t sought an official opinion from an attorney on it until this year.

Another attorney with the city’s law firm 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.

Pottle wrote in his legal memo that he didn’t find any specific cases in Maine concerning unauthorized acts of a municipal body in relation to membership in a regional authority created by state statute, such as the KRDA. In cases involving contracts with municipalities, the municipalities generally are not liable for payment of unauthorized services, he wrote.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @paul_koenig

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