Lewiston voters could establish charter commission next year

·4 min read

Oct. 6—LEWISTON — Voters will decide whether to establish a full charter commission next year, even as they are set to vote on several proposed amendments next month.

The City Council voted 4-3 Tuesday to send the charter commission question to voters in June 2022, which, if approved, could lead to wholesale changes in Lewiston's government structure.

The city conducted a charter review process this year, resulting in nine proposed amendments — including staggered terms — that will appear before voters next month. However, officials in favor of establishing a commission said the process would ensure more voter representation.

Those opposed to the plan, including Mayor Mark Cayer, said this year's charter review committee did its best to solicit public feedback, which resulted in a slate of thoughtful proposals and needed updates to the charter.

Those in favor said a commission would ensure both an equitable process, and a more in-depth review of a charter that hasn't been updated in decades.

Councilors Alicia Rea and Safiya Khalid argued that while the review committee did its job, its representation was not reflective of the entire city.

"Parts of our community were not represented due to one barrier or another," Rea said, adding that the committee's meetings occurred almost entirely over Zoom.

"Hopefully, by June, we're not in that world," she said.

Former Councilor Luke Jensen, who resigned Monday, had pushed for the council to consider the broader commission. Asked about his resignation Tuesday, he said the charter "needs serious reform."

"My issue is with the system, not with any people," he said.

Councilor Lee Clement, who voted against sending the question to voters, said he believes it's too soon to put a commission in place, given the amendments before voters in November.

"I say let those things go, see what happens and give them a chance," he said of the amendments. "We can always establish a charter commission in the future."

He believes the "danger" in establishing a commission so soon after revisions are made is the commission "could come up with something completely different from what we exist under today, and I think it's too much confusion for a very short period of time."

An elected charter commission process, like the one playing out in Portland, requires a referendum to establish, then requires a separate election for commission members.

Early this year, officials decided to establish a charter review committee, which is more limited in the changes it can propose. If the recommended charter amendments are deemed by legal counsel to be "major" changes to Lewiston's structure of government, then a full charter commission is required.

During the process, there was some question over whether moving to staggered terms is considered a major change, but during the review, Lewiston's city attorney said the council could submit a charter amendment adopting staggered terms, "so long as the change is somewhat limited in its scope."

The committee moved forward with annual elections for staggered two-year terms, because it "most closely aligns with the city's current structure and practices." The amendment will be one of nine in front of voters next month.

Cayer said Tuesday that the review committee "went out of their way to solicit public engagement" during the process.

"To turn around after all that work is done, and say, 'We know you did all that work but we're going to do it all over again,' I just think is a terrible message to send," he said.

Councilor Caleb Roebuck said the full commission would be a "great step to give more transparency and accessibility to government by the people."

Matt Roy, a Lewiston resident, spoke in favor of a commission during public comment. He said a charter commission should be established every 20 to 30 years and that Lewiston is due.

"Society changes, and new ideas come forth," he said.

The council ultimately voted 4-3, with Clement, Michel Lajoie and Cayer opposed.

According to a City Council memo, the council agreed to review the issue at a meeting this fall, but expressed support that the issue of a charter commission be separate from the amendments in November "in order to avoid confusion for voters."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting