GARDINER — When Philip Hart was first elected to the Gardiner City Council three decades ago, he didn’t know much about how the city was governed, but he had some pretty strong opinions about taxes.

It was those opinions that prompted his wife Louise to suggest he run for a seat on the city’s governing body, so he took out nomination papers and starting knocking on doors in South Gardiner.

As he steps down this month, Hart is the city’s institutional memory and its conservative conscience, and his colleagues say they will miss him.

“He has sat through the best and the worst councils,” interim City Manager Anne Davis said.

Hart had been serving on the City Council for about four years when Davis first started working for Gardiner city government 26 years ago. She is currently the director of the Gardiner Public Library, and is now in the midst of her second stint filling in as city manager.

“He is an honorable and a kind man, and he would never surprise you,” Davis said. “He will give you a head’s up if he disagrees with you.”

“He’s an institution and an icon,” Mayor Thom Harnett, who is completing his sixth year on the City Council, said. “I’ve really grown to respect and rely on his judgment, and his sense of history and institutional knowledge is incredible. He’s been a wonderful public servant, and he is what public service is about.”

Hart, now 63, has lived in Gardiner for most of his life.

He grew up in South Gardiner in the house where he and his wife would raise their four children.

When he was 5, his parents separated and divorced. He and his brothers remained in South Gardiner with their father, who worked a swing shift.

He said when he was growing up, he was often invited to stay for dinner or overnight at the homes of friends, and in a sense their mothers became a mother to him.

When his father married again, he and his stepmother didn’t get along, so he went to Pittston to live with his mother and stepfather during high school.

Early on, Hart built houses, but with a family to support, he started work for Associated Grocers in South Gardiner where he remained until about eight years ago.

When he was first elected, he said he didn’t know much about how the city operated. In fact, he didn’t even know that city councilors were supposed to get paid.

“Gardiner was known for fighting,” he said, “and that’s what I got into when I first got on council and the city was basically bankrupt. We couldn’t make payroll.”

At the time, he said, the city council members were spending money and not allowing the city manager to do his job.

“They were spending money without really kind of putting a plan together. Once you spent your rainy day money, that was it,” he said.

Eventually, he said, with some turnover on city staff and on the council, that started to change as the city council stopped telling the city manager how the government should be run and started to be the body that sets policy for the city administration to carry out.

“It was a hard thing to stop it. The weak city managers were a real issue. They couldn’t control their employees and they didn’t have enough authority to go to the council and say, ‘This is my job,'” he said.

LESSONS LEARNED

During his time on the council, he has taken on a wide range of issues, including how the people of the city ought to be represented through the ward system.

Currently, the city has four city councilors that represent wards and three city councilors and a mayor who serves at large.

At one point, all the seats were at-large. As a longtime resident of rural Gardiner, Hart said he argued for making sure rural residents have a voice on the council.

“The unfortunate thing is that South Gardiner felt it got the sticky part of the stick because we aren’t in the city,” he said.

Hart said he’s always felt he represented his constituents well because he talked to so many of them and he knew where they were coming from.

“I have always tried to fight for the blue collar workers,” he said one morning last week, sitting by the wood stove in the South Gardiner home where he grew up and raised his own family. “There is a big group of people there that do not get represented well and that struggle to pay taxes.”

While he has argued against spending money, and has cast symbolic votes against spending plans, there are opportunities when the city has to loosen its purse strings.

Twice this year, Hart has advocated for opening the city’s purse strings. In May, he brought an amendment to the budget to provide the Gardiner Police Department with an additional police car and to outfit it and other vehicles with the safety equipment they needed.

And on Wednesday, during his final meeting as a city councilor and filling in for the absent Harnett, he advocated for spending up to $15,000 for bullet-proof vests for the city’s firefighters.

“Even though I don’t like to spend money, I think it’s very irresponsible to not to give your people what they need.”

He’s also pleased that city officials have finally enacted a tax relief program for senior citizens. Hart said he views it as a tool to keep people in Gardiner and reward them for paying their taxes all their lives. He’s seen at least a dozen people he knew growing up forced by economic circumstances from homes they could no longer afford.

Hart has been credited for bringing an open mind to city issues, and he is also known to change his mind.

Initially, he was not a supporter of Gardiner Main Street. Being from South Gardiner, he said, he doesn’t like that city money goes to support an organization that works for just the downtown.

“But when Patrick (Wright) was hired, it was like turning the light on in a dark room,” he said. “I could see he was getting a lot done, working hard to keep the buildings full and coming up with all kinds of creative ways to do stuff.”

He’s also proud of the Waterfront Park and the Libby Hill Business Park, two projects that were developed during his time on the council.

And he’s proud that while he served, he was part of the city’s financial turn around, from not being able to pay the bills to having $1.4 million in reserves.

MOVING ON

Over his career, Hart said he’s had several contested races, but he’s been able to keep his seat.

This year, with his term up, Hart took out nomination papers and started collect signatures. But in September, he announced at the start of a City Council meeting that he and his wife had the chance to downsize, and they were taking advantage of it.

When his son Jesse, who had bought a house in Augusta, took a new job in Portland, he and his wife opted to move in to the single-story home. Their daughter and grandson will move into the River Road home.

“When he bought it, I said he’ll never have trouble selling it because it would make a good retirement home for somebody,” he said, with three bedrooms in its single story. At the time, he didn’t realize it might be his own retirement home.

And in retirement, it means less work for him and his wife.

“It stops me from cutting wood, which I shouldn’t be doing,” he said because of his eye disability; Hart is legally blind.

“I told my wife we’re all heading in the same direction. There will be a time when we can’t get up and down stairs any more, and this is a big house.”

He’s not sure what he’ll do in Augusta, but he has no plans to get involved in politics there.

Hart said he plans to return to Gardiner to put his boat in the water in South Gardiner and to continue to be involved with Gardiner Main Street.

Hart said he’ll miss meeting people, and he’ll miss being a part of making decisions.

But he’s pretty sure that he will leave his mark.

“I honestly believe that the taxes in this city are lower because I was on the council. I think even to this day when people vote on issues and on the budget, I am still on their mind saying, we have to represent these people,” he said. “It adds one more piece when they say ‘Phil will say people can’t afford their taxes.'”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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