The late Rockland civic leader Bob Gagnon made it a point while he served on the city council in the 1990s that its meetings would not continue beyond 9 p.m. When that hour approached, he would point to his watch and stare at then Mayor Tom Molloy.
The meetings almost always ended at 9 p.m. and the five councilors worked together like a team, although there were still spirited debates on public policy issues.
The 9 p.m. rule has not been adhered to for a long time by the council – and it shows.
Another heated exchange occurred at this week’s council meeting. And as with past arguments, they occurred late in the night when the councilors were exhausted from a lengthy meeting.
This week, the councilors had reached the four-hour mark of their Monday night meeting when Mayor Brian Harden informed councilors that before they adjourned there was the need for an executive session (a/k/a a closed-door meeting). The reasons given were litigation, union negotiations, and an economic development matter.
Councilor Elizabeth Dickerson objected saying she was tired of councilors not being informed in advance of what the subjects of closed-door talks would be.
Mayor Harden then lectured Dickerson on what he considered to be the process for holding such closed-door meetings. Dickerson objected to what she considered another example of his condescending lectures to her.
Harden, who was sitting about two feet away from Dickerson, tossed his cap toward Dickerson. She responded by throwing the cap back at him, which flew past his head and landed behind him.
“Don’t throw your friggin hat at me,” she said at the 10:30 p.m. point of the meeting. She then disconnected her computer, voted against going into the closed session and reached over and turned over an empty soda can on the table in front of the mayor.
There was an inaccurate report that Dickerson had poured soda into the mayor’s lap, which fueled considerable online debate. But for the record, all the parties involved say there was no soda, juice or seltzer poured in anyone’s lap.
But this goes to show that late-night meetings tend not to be productive.
This was only the latest in a long line of verbal disputes between city councilors in Rockland over the decades. This was not the first nor will it be the last. Harden and Dickerson have often gotten together like oil and water. He will lecture and she will persist in her arguments.
This latest exchange occurred as councilors wrangle with one of the more contentious issues in years.
The hot issue of 2012 is whether the Brass Compass restaurant should be allowed to set up tables adjacent to the restaurant which happens to be located next to a park at one of the busiest downtown intersections. The council has allowed her to have the tables for nearly a decade and the reasons for refusing this time have been varied and sometimes a moving target.
The supporters of the Brass Compass and its colorful owner Lynn Archer are not going away quietly. Fourteen people spoke at this week’s meeting with many others in attendance to give moral support to allowing Archer to continue to have the outside tables. Many commentators online have taken aim at Harden. This also is not new.
Harden has the distinction of serving the most consecutive terms on the council of anyone since the city council form of government was adopted in Rockland in 1946. Harden was first elected to the city council in 2000, defeating – by coincidence – Dickerson in her first try at public office. Three years later Harden defeated Hal Perry who would later win election to the council and be appointed its mayor. In 2006, Harden eked out a 47-vote win over James Thompson when a third candidate entered the race and divided up the anti-Harden forces. And the last time Harden was on the ballot in 2009, he easily won re-election to a fourth straight term by defeating Dale Hayward.
Harden has clashed with other councilors over the past 12 years at the times he has served as mayor. The arguments he had with former Councilor Adele Grossman Faber were legendary. One time, Harden ordered the television cameras turned off when a citizen was speaking in the public comment session of the meeting and was criticizing a write-in candidate to the council favored by Harden.
That action led to a short-lived effort to recall him from the council.
Whether Harden will seek a fifth consecutive term is uncertain. Nomination papers are not available for Rockland seats until August. Harden’s seat is the only one up for election in Rockland in 2012.
Names of potential challengers to Harden include former councilor Lewis Metcalf as well as former mayor-for-life Molloy.
A Molly/Harden matchup would be similar to the Ali/Frazier fights of the 1970s. Molloy has the distinction of serving the most terms of anyone in Rockland’s history – seven. He also has served as mayor more often than anyone – seven times. Harden is in his fourth term as mayor.
The outcome of such a matchup could affect many issues – including how long meetings will last.