Whenever I hear or see a situation like the Havre de Grace fence controversy, I'm quickly reminded of the many words of wisdom learned years ago from a man called "Fish."
"You have to treat people fairly, treat them the same, show respect," I heard him say on many occasions. It was part of his common sense approach to politics, to life actually, and though our conversations took place many years ago, his credo served him well, just as many of his teachings have served me well in the news business and beyond.
A fence controversy where one property owner is being treated differently than the other by city government would have never happened in Havre de Grace, if Roland E. Powell had been in a position of authority. No way. If the law says one thing, you don't do the opposite, nor do you enforce it differently for one person and not another.
This was the foundation of Fish Powell's beliefs. If you don't know the person, you may know the name, particularly if you spend any time in or near Ocean City, where the convention center is named after him (an odd choice), as is the main lifeguard station (more appropriate, because of his lifelong involvement with the fire and rescue service).
I got to know "The Fishman," another nickname, years ago when he was a city councilman in Ocean City, representing the north end of town, and the chief of the volunteer fire company. He was sort of the low man on the council at that point, a newcomer, but you could tell pretty quickly he had a bright political future ahead, even though he was well into middle age at that point.
Powell didn't brook any nonsense. He spoke his mind and although Ocean City government was basically a good ole boys operation in those days, Powell was very forthright in his opinions. If he saw an injustice, he wasn't about to turn a blind eye to it, even if somebody with the right connections was on the receiving end of favored treatment.
In Ocean City, city-owned property was to be protected at all costs. That's no different form most places, Havre de Grace included.
Fish Powell, whom I believe worked in real estate at some point, had a good sense of how disputes involving public and private property should and could be resolved. If it was the public's property, then it should be treated as such. No exceptions. If something got built and was found to be in the city right-of-way - and unintentional mistakes did occasionally occur, as well as many deliberate ones - temporary accommodations might be made, but only so long as the owner of the structure understood it would have to come down within a reasonable time.
Not all of Powell's city council colleagues shared his sense of fairness, but he was a very persuasive personality, and he frequently won arguments over rights-of-way encroachment simply because he was legally and morally correct. Public property is just that and should be treated as such. That also means you don't look the other way with a wink and a nod when somebody connected misappropriates a few feet of the public right-of-way, and then bring down the weight of the law and city hall against someone else not so well connected who does something similar.
After eight years on the city council, Fish Powell went on to serve on the Worcester County Board of County Commissioners and then became mayor of Ocean City, serving for 11 years. He's in his early 80s now. He told a Baltimore Sun reporter a few years ago he spent most of his retirement time fishing and walking and enjoying Ocean City year-round. Fish was like that when I knew him, too, only busier, because he always had time to talk to people – didn't matter if they were visitors or locals.
The folks in Havre de Grace could have used a little Fish Powell common sense when it came to the infamous Commerce Street fence. Maybe they should consult with him when situations like this come up in the future, as they invariably will. Fish would know had to handle it: straight and fair.