The unusually large crowd that appeared for Tuesday's Evesham Township Council meeting after hearing that officials were refusing to answer questions did not have to fidget very long to witness its government in action.
After two months of silence, the mayor and council stunned the audience by quickly reversing course and responding to questions. But civility broke down late in the meeting when Mayor Randy Brown lashed out, and police had to ask one resident to leave.
This was no dull, routine municipal meeting. It would feature a debate over ethics, and puzzlement over a pair of strange tribal figurines that partly blocked Brown's face as he sat on the dais.
"It's just weird. It hides [Brown's] face pretty well when people try to talk to him or try to film him at the meeting," said Phil Warren, a resident who has been recording meetings in recent months. Warren, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for council last year, said "the trinkets" have appeared at nearly every meeting for the last year.
Some of the 60 residents who attended Tuesday said they were struck by the display and thought the figurines were inappropriate.
Brown, a Republican, did not respond to calls seeking comment.
On Tuesday, Brown at times rocked back in his chair and ducked behind the figures. Other times, he pushed them out of his way to make a statement or chastise someone who asked a question. Still other times, he positioned the figures so that they faced the audience.
As the meeting became more heated, some residents questioned a tax abatement granted to a developer who recently purchased a parcel from Brown and others to build an apartment complex. Brown recused himself from the vote, and said nothing about when the sale went through and how much he received.
Joe Barbagiovanni, a former chairman of the local GOP club, said the all-Republican council was "gutless" for approving the abatement and failing to be more open about the sale of the property, which he viewed as a conflict of interest.
Town Solicitor John Gillespie replied there was no conflict because Brown did not participate in the vote and no longer owned the property.
Gillespie then spoke at length about the importance of showing respect to the council and following rules when giving public comment.
During the meeting, nine residents asked questions, ranging from the tax abatement to the purchase of a $1.5 million artificial turf field.
In closing remarks, Brown struck back. He said the public comments were "100 percent politically motivated" and taunted those who criticized him, calling them "cowardly." Residents are "against everything," he said, but are not courageous enough to run for office and take a seat in government.
Brown also mocked Warren for recording the meeting.
"I look out and see a bunch of people, some of which should be sitting at a school board meeting tonight, where they have a $70 million plus budget . . . and you're looking at a council that has continued to reduce property taxes," he said, his voice becoming agitated.
That's when a few residents began walking out. Among them was Barbagiovanni, who then turned around and said the mayor had no right to suggest what meeting they should attend, and called the mayor an obscene name. Two of the three police officers stationed in the room approached him and warned him to keep moving.
"Why don't they want us to come to meetings and speak?" Barbagiovanni said later. "What are they afraid of?"
Deputy Mayor Robert DiEnna said some residents who speak at meetings just want to make accusations rather than get answers.
None of the other council members responded to calls for comment.
The tension in Evesham began in December when the mayor responded angrily after one resident asked about his abstention over a vote, and another asked about a tax abatement. Brown, a kicking consultant for the Baltimore Ravens, answered a few of the questions, and then said: "Remember this is public comment, not public question and answer."
Since then, Brown has ignored questions from residents during the public portion of the meeting. At a February meeting, he interrupted Councilman Kenneth D'Andrea when D'Andrea attempted to answer a question about a sidewalk repair, and warned him not to respond until the end of the meeting, when the council makes closing remarks.
Brown has defended the policy by saying he responds to questions when residents see him at athletic fields, where he coaches youth sports, and at the local supermarket and restaurants.
"I can see why people would be intimidated to ask questions" at meetings, said Kathleen Reilly-Santomero, a Democrat who also ran unsuccessfully for the council. "He's hidden by the dolls he puts up. It seems a little crazy to me. He's a leader in the community."
The eight-inch figures have straw skirts and straw hair. One appears to be standing at a lectern and making an angry point, while the other holds a candle.
After the meeting, when the clerks placed the figurines into a cart with a pile of folders, Reilly-Santomero said, she asked them what the figurines were. "They said Brown says they are his good luck charms, his voodoo dolls, and they ward off evil spirits," she said.
DiEnna said Brown got them from an Evesham farmer's market that closed a few years ago. "They're his good luck charm. There's no dark meaning or hidden meaning," he said.
Town Administrator Tom Czerniecki said that when he started working for the town last fall he, too, asked Brown what the figurines were. He said Brown laughed and said, "I'm just trying to keep the meetings light."