Nearly all the municipalities in Androscoggin County have joined in a lawsuit alleging that the county’s seven commissioners set their own salaries and benefits without having the legal authority to do so.

The civil lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Androscoggin Superior Court on behalf of 12 cities and towns by Lewiston-based attorney Peter J. Brann.

Lewiston, Auburn, Poland, Lisbon, Turner, Durham, Greene, Sabattus, Minot, Leeds, Livermore Falls and Mechanic Falls are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Only the towns of Wales and Livermore did not join it. The defendants are county commissioners Elaine Makas, Ronald E. Chicoine, Matthew P. Roy, Randall A. Greenwood, Alfreda A. Fournier, Beth C. Bell and Sally A. Christner.

The civil action contends that allowing a commissioner to set his or her own salary represents “an obvious conflict of interest,” and asks the courts to order the commissioners to repay all their salaries and benefits that were not approved by the county’s budget committee.

The budget committee voted in November to reduce the commissioners’ salaries to $3,500 per commissioner – a reduction from an earlier proposal to pay $7,200 each to two incumbent commissioners and $5,000 each to five newly elected commissioners.

The commissioners later voted to increase their salaries but the exact amounts were unclear Wednesday night.

The suit also asks a judge to enter a permanent injunction against the county prohibiting it from paying salaries and benefits to elected county officials without first getting approval from the county’s budget committee. The suit says the municipalities provide about 80 percent of the county’s budget.

“The fact that virtually every municipality, large and small, in Androscoggin County has joined together to sue the county and its commissioners speaks volumes about the extent to which they feel strongly that the county and the commissioners should not be approving their own budgets, salaries and benefits, and then just sending the bills to the municipalities and the taxpayers,” Sabattus Police Chief and Interim Town Manager Anthony Ward said in a press release.

Historically, the county’s budget committee, comprised of representatives from the municipalities, has voted on whether to approve commissioners’ salaries and benefits.

In 2012, voters approved a new charter for Androscoggin County that stipulates that the commissioners’ salaries and benefits are still subject to approval by the budget committee, according to court documents. But, in 2013, the commissioners went to the Legislature and “with little, if any, notice to the voters and taxpayers who approved the charter,” received approval for a charter amendment that gave them power to set their own salaries. The governor also signed the Chapter 62 resolve.

“Although labeled a technical amendment, Chapter 62 perpetrated a substantial power grab, transferring final approval over the county budget from the budget committee to the commissioners,” the civil action states.

Brann, in his court filing, says nothing changed until late 2014 when the commissioners “changed course and took it upon themselves to approve not only the county’s budget, but also their own salaries and benefits.”

Lewiston City Councilor Mike Lachance, who is also a member of the county’s budget committee, said the commissioners have “spurned the representative voice of every municipality in Androscoggin County.”

“Not only is this an unprecedented disservice to the taxpayers, jeopardizing the concept of checks and balances, it is likely a violation of state law,” Lachance said in a statement.

County commissioners issued a statement earlier Wednesday, acknowledging the lawsuit. The county provided their response to WCSH-TV.

“The commissioners regret that public resources are being expended on this unfortunate lawsuit but are confident that the county has carried out its business in full compliance with the terms of the charter. The charter itself is valid as the governing document for our county. The commissioners will be reviewing the lawsuit with legal counsel and will have no further comment at this time,” the statement said.

 


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