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Business As Usual

john conway
Posted 12/30/22

While there are some who act as if provocative rhetoric and heated political battles in Sullivan County government are unique to the current legislature, the fact is that both were common occurrences …

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Business As Usual


While there are some who act as if provocative rhetoric and heated political battles in Sullivan County government are unique to the current legislature, the fact is that both were common occurrences when the Board of Supervisors governed the County. 

Examples abound, dating back to the very first Board of Supervisors in 1809, but perhaps none is more illustrative than the maneuvering that took place around the reorganization of 1957, when the 15-member Board was made up of eight Democrats and seven Republicans, each of whom, a full decade before weighted voting was mandated, had a single vote. 

What might have seemed like a perfunctory re-election by the Supervisors of Highland Democrat Peter F. Callahan as Chairman at the January meeting, took a strange twist on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1956, when Neversink Supervisor Joseph Raffa took ill. While doctors were busy scheduling Raffa for surgery, Republicans on the Board were deciding how best to exploit the situation. 

Raffa was a patient at Liberty’s Maimonides Hospital when the Supervisors met to reorganize on Thursday, January 3, leaving the Board evenly split at seven Republicans and seven Democrats. Sensing that the reseating of Callahan as chairman was no longer a foregone conclusion, Republicans acted quickly, and Tusten Supervisor Henry Zehner nominated Lumberland’s Edward Bisland for chairman, a move that was seconded by Bethel’s Harold Barber. 

Stunned, but recovering quickly, Thompson supervisor Ralph Coddington, a Democrat, then nominated Callahan, and that motion was seconded by William Pearson of Liberty. Predictably, when temporary Chairman Mortimer Michaels of Fallsburg tallied the votes, both Bisland and Callahan were favored on seven ballots. A second roll call vote followed, with the same result. 

A recess was called, during which both sides frantically debated a course of action, and when the meeting resumed, another vote was taken with the identical outcome. After Republicans floated the idea that they might accept Michaels as a compromise candidate, a move that failed when the Fallsburg supervisor declined, Pearson asked that the meeting be adjourned to reconvene at Maimonides when Raffa, just about to undergo surgery, might be well enough to vote. 

At that point, a firestorm erupted. 

Republicans maintained that it was illegal to hold Board proceedings anywhere else but at the Courthouse in Monticello, a contention that County Attorney Irving Bershader, a Democrat, disputed. So, the fourteen supervisors met later that day in the hospital, where Raffa was able to cast the deciding vote for Callahan as he was being wheeled into the operating room. This did not resolve the matter. 

Republicans promptly filed a court action, asking Judge Sydney F. Foster to declare that the continuation of the meeting—and thus Callahan’s election as Chairman— was null and void. But that wasn’t all. 

“In their application to Justice Foster, the Republicans also opened up a few other old wounds,” the Liberty Register newspaper reported in a front page story in its January 10 edition, barely hiding its own political leanings, which at that point in time were solidly Democratic. “Declaring that the political line-up of eight-seven Democrat majority puts the Board on the borderline, the applicants charged that the majority, ‘to a great extent, has tried to avoid giving true representation to all of the towns represented by Republican supervisors.’ The meeting last Thursday, and its results, the application asserted, were part of a greater plan visualized by the Democratic majority in its attempt to disenfranchise by indirect method those towns represented by Republican supervisors.” 

After a temporary stay while arguments were heard, the court case went nowhere, Joe Raffa recovered from his surgery, and in an abbreviated meeting on Friday, January 18, he returned to again cast the deciding vote in Callahan’s reelection to the chair. Aside from the welcoming back of the convalescing Neversink supervisor, the session proceeded without incident in what the Register referred to in its January 24 edition as “business as usual.” 

The détente was short lived, however, as in the very next meeting, Callahan used his position as chair to deliver a strongly worded statement accusing the Republicans on the Board of “playing fast and loose with the taxpayers of Sullivan County” and of “a disgraceful performance in tying up the Board in deadlock in a vain effort to gain some political advantage by a propaganda smokescreen.” 

Callahan angrily proclaimed the two-week long deadlock the Republicans caused was a “blitzkrieg engineered and master-minded by Republican Assemblyman Hyman Mintz, who worked from Albany and called all the plays.” 

Never in his eight years as chairman had any Republican risen at a meeting to complain about disenfranchisement, Callahan said, and it was only when the opportunity to disrupt the Board presented itself through Raffa’s absence that the card was played. 

Callahan concluded his statement with an ironic truth, maintaining that the Democrats were governing no differently than the Republicans had when they were in the majority. For better or worse, it truly was business as usual. 

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com. 


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