Petty politics in Harbour Grace: A fight, video surveillance and a judge's admonishment

·5 min read
Security footage provided to CBC
Security footage provided to CBC

The night an angry councillor chased a one-legged man with a heart condition out of the town hall in 2019 is a meeting people in Harbour Grace still talk about.

The mayor himself had to break up what the grappling gentlemen would have called "fisticuffs" back in their day, and the RCMP arrived to warn both men to grow up, security video captured the contretemps (which would later be used as evidence).

And then there's Bridget Rose. She is the unlikely legal protagonist in this yarn who would show that, sometimes, yes, you actually can fight town hall.

But before we get to the judge's gavel, let's get to the meeting of Feb. 11, 2019, when Mayor Don Coombs brought down the hammer to stop a confusing altercation that looked like an assault.

Starts as a heckle, ends as a tussle

Heckling from public galleries in Newfoundland is one of those violations of decorum for which a good number of electors in this province appear to have acquired a natural talent. Citizen Tom Rose was crammed into Harbour Grace's intimate chambers when he got to his feet, set to deliver a rather unsubtle evaluation about the nature of Coun. Kevin Williams's working relationship with Coombs.

"Kevin, you've got shit on your neck," he said.

Williams blanched as Rose started to leave but managed to find a retort to defend his honour. It wasn't much, but possibly better than nothing.

"You've got some brown on your nose too, Tom."

Perhaps Williams felt he had been bested, or maybe the councillor was disappointed with the qualitative descent of political discourse in Harbour Grace that night; for whatever reason, Williams darted to follow Rose as he limped through the door into the lobby. That's when both men found themselves in an unfriendly clasp that quickly turned into an ugly dance.

Eddy Kennedy/CBC
Eddy Kennedy/CBC

The video clearly shows Williams opening the door to go after Rose, who quickly pivots on his good leg and manages to pin Williams back to the door. Rose raises his arm and makes a fist but just who is assaulting whom in this municipal melee is ambiguous.

That's when Coombs arrives at the entrance. His worship intercedes, grabbing Williams and hustling him back toward the town's meeting space.

The story could have ended there, and while you may think we passed bizarre a few paragraphs ago, this is where the story gets weird.

Williams came to view himself as the victim that night and so hired a lawyer to try to obtain a peace bond. He wanted a judge to determine that Tom Rose posed a threat to his personal safety, and his aim was to get a court restricting Rose's movements — presumably to keep him from returning to the visitors' gallery at the town hall.

Eddy Kennedy/CBC
Eddy Kennedy/CBC

Bridget Rose's courtroom debut

After the usual delays, cancellations and postponements, a court date was set for Sept. 19, and Bridget Rose, Tom's wife, finally enters this story.

The couple could not afford a lawyer, so Bridget studied up on peace bonds and entered the Harbour Grace courthouse prepared to defend her husband.

Williams had lawyered up, and Coombs sat quietly in the hallway waiting to testify on his friend's behalf.

After Williams swore on the Bible, his lawyer had him recount the events described above. Williams — who was 77 years old at the time — went into detail about his diabetes (he required 180 units of insulin per day), his pills for high blood pressure, the two implants in his eyes, as well as his puffer use.

The relative health problems of the two combatants would come up during Bridget Rose's first-ever cross-examination. What follows is taken directly from the court's audio recording. It tells the rest of the story.

Illustration by Pete Soucy
Illustration by Pete Soucy

B. Rose: "When Mr. Rose said, 'You have shit on your shoulders,' can you tell the court what your reply was?"

Williams: "I can't seem to remember."

B. Rose: "You are 77?"

Williams: "Yes."

B. Rose: "Mr. Rose is 62.… We understand you're up there in your age and you've got complications. Mr. Rose here, he worked for this town for 25 years, you know, also got broken up. Multiple injuries to back, neck, hip. An amputated leg, seven heart attacks, high blood pressure. When this happened that night, you knew he had an artificial leg. It did not stop you from going after him, did it?"

Illustration by Pete Soucy
Illustration by Pete Soucy

Williams: "No."

B. Rose: "You're trying to tell this court that you fear my husband because of your health conditions, but he also has health conditions and a majority of things wrong with him… On February 11th when you went after him, did you show fear? Were you afraid?"

Williams: "No, I wasn't aggressive."

B. Rose: "Were you angry?"

Williams: "That's natural."

B. Rose: "You were not afraid, you were angry?"

This is where Williams fell into Mrs. Rose's trap. He said: "I'm not afraid of this man."

A somewhat flummoxed Judge Greg Brown raised his hands, and with a somewhat chastising tone, told Williams and his lawyer, "He just under oath told me he is not afraid of the man. And for that reason I am going to dismiss this application."

Brown went further: "It looks to me very much as though he was angry as he said he was.… He was pursuing Mr. Rose to essentially confront him."

As the dispute between the one-legged man with the heart condition and the angry councillor came to a close, the judge offered advice to the courtroom and everyone in Harbour Grace about settling arguments: "Sometimes, taking a deep breath is better than rushing after someone."

Author's postscript: I started working on this story in February, right before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, Tom Rose died a short time after. Bridget Rose has asked the Town of Harbour Grace to apologize to her family members for putting them through what she considers a frivolous legal process. Mayor Don Coombs told CBC News the town did lower flags to half-mast when Tom Rose died, as a sign of respect for his 25 years' employment with the town. Efforts to contact Coun. Kevin Williams have so far been unsuccessful. Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador