Henry Gull, 67 and dapper in dark suit and tie, has shown up to Lancaster Town Board meetings for years with a videocamera, quietly taping the proceedings for his own "edification, clarification and education."
No one has ever complained.
Certainly, no one has ever tried to remove him and his "truth machine," as he calls his camcorder.
That changed last week, when Police Chief Thomas E. Fowler -- holding a public forum called to answer allegations that he is tyrannical and vindictive -- ordered police officers to physically haul away Gull and Jim Guenther, a 68-year-old fellow gadfly.
The forced exit of the two men, who have been critical of the chief, clearly left some town officials uncomfortable.
"I didn't know what to do, to be honest," said Town Supervisor Robert H. Giza, who attended the session with the rest of the Town Board. "It didn't make sense to me. They tape every one of my meetings, and I don't really have a problem with it."
Now the police union, locked in bitter contract negotiations, is portraying the episode as proof of its allegations that Fowler is dictatorial and intimidating.
"I couldn't have a better opportunity," said Gerald J. Gill, head of the Lancaster Police Benevolent Association, "than two senior citizens being dragged out because they disagreed with
Tom Fowler. They're gadflies. But they're not bad guys."
In fact, even the chief has some regrets now.
"I can see now I'll be getting some bad PR," Fowler said.
The showdown occurred as the meeting was set to begin Tuesday evening in the town court building. Fowler says he had ordered that only reporters be allowed to tape the session, which he called to address complaints by the union and others about his management of the department.
The prohibition was not a violation of the Open Meetings law, according to Robert Freeman of the State Committee on Open Government. That law generally applies to elected officials -- not those appointed, like Fowler -- and to meetings called to conduct government business.
"I wanted to prevent the type of editing later that would not deal properly with the story," Fowler said of his non-media camera ban. He also said he thought audience members would be uncomfortable speaking with non-media videocameras there.
But when, after a warning, the police tried to remove the videocamera, both Gull and Guenther latched onto it and refused to budge.
Guenther, who observers said was hauled out with his knees dragging on the floor, did not suffer injuries. However, Gull said he is experiencing pain in his arm where officers pulled him and is now meeting with an attorney to explore filing charges against the department.
"There was a lot of force involved," Gull said. "I'm still reeling. We weren't being disruptive. We weren't a threat."
Fowler, chief for 20 years, denied that undo force was involved.
"The gentlemen chose to hang onto it (the videocamera)," Fowler said. "They were treated with the utmost respect. I don't think anything we did would have a negative impact on their health."
Fowler also said the confrontation wouldn't have occurred if the two men had followed his rules.
"It's not a question of being disruptive," he said. "It's a question of complying with the rules set for the meeting. I have the right to set the rules. I don't understand why any citizen wouldn't comply."