Lewiston and Auburn are famous as the great “twin cities” of Maine, often going under the name LA for shorthand. However, on the ballot this November. 7, there will be a referendum question on whether Lewiston and Auburn should legally merge to become one city under one government. The measure, if passed, would cause changes in the tax environment, municipal government, and (as some argue) the culture of these two cities. This proposal has unsurprisingly generated much controversy throughout the area, and on Tuesday, October 4, I had the chance to witness this controversy in action at a debate at the Gendron Franco Center on Cedar Street.

The cathedral was packed as Lewiston and Auburn residents flocked to see Kristy Phinney of the One LA campaign and Matthew Leonard of the Coalition to Oppose Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation (COLAC) debate each other on the merits of merging or staying separate.  If you would like more information on both campaigns, visit their websites at http://www.colacmaine.org/ and http://www.onelanow.com/.

The debate was moderated by Matt Shaw of Uplift LA, an affiliate group of the Lewiston-Auburn Chamber of Commerce dedicated to community engagement and economic growth. Shaw told me the public debates on the merger that Uplift LA has been hosting for several weeks “are vital for community members to have their voices, values and opinions heard. If forums are not made available, it will negate the opportunities that the public should be given to have their concerns understood.”

In giving her opening remarks, Phinney described how One LA has “taken input from a diversity of work groups and compiled data into an 80 page report that convinced [her] that this merger is the right thing for our communities.” According to Phinney, this merger will “act as a catalyst to launch us into the future, to convince people to come and stay in our cities.” Her main arguments were that the combined economies and governments would add more value to residents’ tax dollars, attract a wider workforce, expand resources, and maintain local heritage while building new identities.

Leonard followed in his opening statement by expressing admiration for One LA’s hard work, but maintained that the merger is a “bad idea that’s been floating around for decades and has never proven to be worth the time.” Leonard’s main arguments centered around the cost the citizens of both cities would bare, most notably having to pay back pre-existing and future debt that would be generated by a merger. He also criticized certain statistics promoted by One LA, such as how they allegedly understate how much property taxes would be negatively impacted by a merger.

Shaw then proceeded to ask the two debaters a series of questions, such as how will the merger/no merger affects current and future businesses, along with how merging or not merging ameliorate poverty in our cities. Leonard suggested that LA needs to join Maine in being “Vacationland” by investing in a visitors/tourism bureau and that Lewiston-Auburn already work together constantly with joint economies and governmental bodies; meaning a merger would not really change much. Phinney stated that consolidated savings and stable tax rates were paramount to creating better education systems in the cities, leading to more efficient governing and a thriving economy of hardworking young people.

There were brief pauses throughout the debate when audience members could participate in SMS polls about the state of LA and what they thought about the merger debate. Questions included which city audience members resided in and if they thought that they have been given enough information on the referendum. The room was evenly divided between Lewiston and Auburn residents, the majority of whom felt that both campaigns have been very informative on their stances.

In the end, each debater ended on an optimistic note that called for unity. “You have all heard a lot of noise and there have been divisive feelings,” said Leonard, “and I hope we can all come together on November 8 after voting down this merger on November 7.” Phinney concluded by saying that, with a merger, “the opportunities are endless. I cannot think of any other pair of cities with the guts to do something like this. I truly believe in this community.”

Let us hope that, regardless of the referendum decision, LA will move into the prosperous future for which both sides are striving.