News of the recent death of former Havre de Grace City Councilman Ralph B. Mason brought to mind what has to be one of the all-time funniest situations I have witnessed in my 40-plus years as a journalist.
It was during a city council meeting, sometime in 1982-83. The late Charles Montgomery was mayor, and Mr. Mason had been recently elected to the council in the aftermath of the controversy over passage of the city's first zoning ordinance in March 1982.
The mayor supported the zoning ordinance and had gotten it through the council. Opponents of the law, including Mr. Mason, marshaled their forces and defeated several incumbent council members in the May 1982 election. Mr. Mason was one of those elected under the banner of CARGO, the anti-zoning group that formed. (Forgive me, folks, but I just don't remember what CARGO stood for.)
Needless to say, the relationship between Mr. Mason and Mr. Montgomery was anything but cordial. On the council dais, Mr. Mason was found of making stentorian and bombastic pronouncements, not all of which were entirely accurate. Mr. Montgomery was as reticent and dignified as Mr. Mason was loud and, on occasion, boorish.
My story revolves around a trip the mayor and his wife, Norma, took to China, accompanied by the engineer, Eugene Hsi, whose association with the city dated to the 1960s when a company he worked for was hired to design the city's new sewage treatment plant. Mr. Hsi, who was of Chinese nationality, ended up getting what amounted to an open-ended consulting contract with the city that appeared to be a lifetime sinecure. (At least one mayor wanted to break it and was advised by legal counsel he'd probably lose in court.) Twenty years after he first worked on the sewer plant, Mr. Hsi was still getting work from the city, even after he served a brief federal prison term (mostly on work release) for admitting he paid kickbacks to Baltimore County officials (including Spiro Agnew) to get engineering jobs.
At the time of the Montgomery trip to China, Havre de Grace was engaged in one of its periodic debates about expanding the sewer plant and how to pay for it. There was also talk that the city ought to pipe its sewage to Aberdeen and have it treated there because it would be cheaper in the long run.
At one council meeting over in the old city hall on Union Avenue, Mr. Mason started complaining about not being informed of the costs involved in the various alternatives with the treatment plant and about Mr. Hsi's relationship with the city. He then brought up the mayor's recent trip and said:
"I just don't think the business of the City of Havre de Grace should be transacted on top of the Great Wall of China."
Before the mayor could respond, Norma Montgomery, who was sitting in the audience jumped to her feet, and essentially called Mr. Mason a liar. She looked like she was about to attack the councilman with her pocketbook when her obviously flustered husband, in what I suspect might have been the first and only time he ever raised his voice toward his wife, told her to sit down and he would handle it.
This was great small town theater, though I would also say it was a bit over the top, even for Havre de Grace, where there has always been a tradition of raucous behavior in city politics. Things finally did get calmed down and the two men managed to co-exist for a few months until Mr. Mason challenged Mr. Montgomery in the next mayoral election and lost, albeit narrowly. He then declined to run for re-election to the council in 1984 and exited politics, seemingly as quickly as he had jumped in.
Mr. Mason started spending more and more time in Florida and more or less permanently relocated there after he sold his property at Concord Point to Allen Fair, a deal which touched off a whole new set of city political controversies well into the 1990s.
As we covered the saga of the Mason property – now owned by the city, I was working in the composing room at our old building on Hays Street in Bel Air one day in the late 1980s when the wall phone rang. I picked up the receiver, and a familiar voice barked:
"This is Ralph Mason. I'm down here in Florida and you people still won't leave me alone! What's this about my property…"
Once he had quieted down, I wished him well in his retirement and told him what I pleasant surprise it was to hear from him. Though I suspect that was the last conversation we ever had, to this day, whenever I hear or see something about the Great Wall of China, I still think of Ralph B. Mason and smile.