12/07/2011 03:46 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2012

Sidney, NY Stands Up To Bob McCarthy And Beats Him

On 8PM on November 4th, 2009, Amir Celoski was sitting in his Acura at a traffic light in Paterson New Jersey. The 28-year-old masonry contractor was on his way to pick up new company shirts for his employees; on the passenger seat was sushi for his fiancé, Sibel. Then a Honda minivan hit him and two other cars at full speed. Amir's car was demolished. He didn't survive. The driver was not prosecuted.

That accident, one of 583 New Jersey traffic deaths in 2009, tripped a series of events that eventually dealt a stinging political defeat to Bob McCarthy, the Republican town supervisor of Sidney, N.Y. who last year tried to dig up Amir, and fellow congregant Tanveer Iqbal, from their perfectly legal graves in a Sufi Muslim dergah, or religious center, in the town's rolling hills.

If Mr. McCarthy's story was isolated, interest in his fate would be confined to deeply rural Delaware County, where Sidney is the largest town. But it's not. In part, Sidney's story is the story of our recent national elections -- about a right wing politician, running as a businessman who would turn things around, who got elected and morphed into someone who didn't bother with the niceties of constitutional government.

One illustration of that: At the first town board meeting after this November's election, Mr. McCarthy and his board -- it's in power until January -- approved a law overriding the state's two percent property tax cap, even though that law hadn't been drafted yet. In fairness to Mr. McCarthy, the state encouraged local governments to approve the override if they felt it would harm them. But typically, a law has to exist before it's approved.

And Sidney's story stands on its own, too: As a story out of a 1930s Hollywood movie about what's best about America -- a town that rose up, united across party lines, and crushed someone who offended its sense of decency and fair play. The America, that is, that we all believe in.

The 2011 national election was filled with electoral pushback against politicians like Mr. McCarthy -- people who alienated the voters when they turned out to be more interested in pushing a right wing agenda than governing for all the people.

Consider, for instance, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the Koch Brothers associate who ginned up a financial crisis within months of taking office, so he could use said "crisis" as a pretext to crush the state's public employee unions. Instead, Walker stirred up a recall election and watched his approval ratings plunge -- most recently, to 38 percent.

The news about Sidney's brawl over Amir Celoski's grave, broken on these pages last September, attracted international attention and ridicule on national television, and eventually forced Mr. McCarthy to drop the whole thing.

But he didn't apologize -- even when he was asked to point-blank at a packed board meeting. That was a bad idea in a small town like Sidney, population 3,622, because it cemented in place Mr. McCarthy's reputation as a bully who didn't know how to treat people. A governor with a motorcade and security detail can avoid the personal fallout from ignoring the voters -- but not a small town official, likely to see his constituents every day.

Mr. McCarthy's curt "No" to the question joined with later events to elect two of his enemies to the five-member Town Board, and to re-elect the Town Clerk despite his efforts to force her out. This left him with only one reliable ally on the Board -- his step-son -- and threw the balance of power into the hands of what until the election had been the Board's sole Democratic member.

How -- and whether -- he'll survive the next two years of his elected term is a subject of lively speculation in Sidney. And he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself these days. But, he says, one thing is off the table.

"I'm so sick of these people I can't stand it," he says of his opponents, who he accuses of spreading lies about him. "I have money. I don't have to do this. For me to put up with this is disgusting."

"But I'm not quitting."

Events almost didn't reach this point. The uproar over the Muslim graves gained strength beginning in Spring 2010, when Mr. McCarthy first asked the town attorney to look into the matter; but people were as angry about his making Sidney a global laughingstock as they were about what he'd wanted to do.

They wanted Mr. McCarthy to apologize, and change his ways, but more than anything, they wanted the whole thing to go away.

After last October, and after the third in a string of angry town board meetings, most people turned their attention to Thanksgiving and Christmas, and did their best to put the whole hoo-hah behind them.

As winter dragged on, even the Sufis dropped the issue. "We'd pushed it as far as we could, and we had other things to deal with," says Hans Hass, the dergah's spokesman.

Among them: Adding a second story to a barn on the dergah's property -- a 50-acre former farm -- and turning the ground floor into a mosque.

According to most people interviewed for this story, the whole thing would have gone away -- if Mr. McCarthy had left well enough alone. But he didn't.

Instead, he went after Lisa Barrows, the county's Stop-DWI coordinator, and Lisa French, Sidney's Town Clerk.

By all accounts, Ms. Barrows had turned a ghost of a Stop-DWI program into a roaring -- and self-financed -- success, About the time Mr. McCarthy began moving against the Sufis over Amir Celoski's grave, she invited him to an event in Sidney, only to get an email from Mr. McCarthy telling her her program was a waste of time and money, that she was hurting local business, that America was created in taverns, that he was her worst enemy, and that if he could hurt her, he would.

Which is what he did. By December 2010, Ms. Barrows had been pushed out her job. She filed charges against Mr. McCarthy and two other officials she maintained had conspired to oust her -- exactly what you'd expect in most urban areas -- only to find herself arrested over some golf clubs that the legal complaint said were county property. Ms. Barrows finally pleaded guilty to reduced charges in November because, she said, she worried she'd be serving time with people she'd sent to jail. She maintains her innocence of all charges.

Going after Lisa French didn't work out as well for Mr. McCarthy. A tall, striking blond, Lisa French is a Sidney native and life-long Republican with a lot of friends, in a place where those things mean something.

By all accounts, Mr. McCarthy, who hails from nearby Unadilla and hadn't been active in Sidney's Republican politics until he decided to run for Supervisor, wanted Ms. French to join his "team" and do things his way. But from the beginning, she just couldn't do that. Lisa French does things by the book, and from her perspective, how Mr. McCarthy did things was just wrong -- against the book, and against her writ.

"Just doing my job correctly put my neck on the line," says Ms. French.

An example of how Mr. McCarthy cut corners: A recent audit of Sidney by the New York Comptroller's Office found that while Mr. McCarthy hadn't misspent any money or committed any crimes, he had given his bookkeeper a rubber stamp to sign his name to town checks -- from January 1, 2010 to February 9, 2011, all but 30 of 1,487 checks issued by the Town. This sort of behavior is very common in private business -- but strictly forbidden for government officials.

As the relationship between Mr. McCarthy and Ms. French deteriorated, matters like the accuracy of board meeting minutes, or where certain town records were kept, became sore points. At one meeting, Mr. McCarthy called her "a Muslim lover."

The break came in May 2011, when Ms. French returned from a cruise to discover Mr. McCarthy was trying to prove she wasn't a Sidney resident, and so ineligible for office. Ms. French, who's personable and forthright but no one's idea of a fool, had little trouble understanding this as a direct attack. What to do about it, on the other hand, was another matter.

It was about then that she had to certify the town's taxes in Delhi, the county seat, and ran into local attorney Thomas Schimmerling at the Delhi Diner. Mr. Schimmerling, a life-long progressive activist, had played an important part against Mr. McCarthy during the confrontation over the cemetery.

In Delaware County, which is bigger than Rhode Island but has a population of 47,480, everybody knows everybody, and Ms. French and Mr. Schimmerling naturally started talking. Just as naturally, Ms. French told Mr. Schimmerling what Mr. McCarthy was doing. This shifted a few pebbles under the situation.

"I was shocked when she told me what was happening and decided to try and line up Democratic support for her," says Mr. Schimmerling. "I made a few phone calls and got her in touch with the Democrats in Sidney, and countywide."

Ms. French was up for re-election that year, and Democrats in Sidney discussed trying to get her to run on the Democratic ticket. The Democratic Committee decided against that at the time, according to Dawn Rivers, then Sidney's Democratic Chair. But the Democrats did ask later, and Ms. French eventually ran for her post as a Democrat. But what those early calls did was raise the possibility that control of the Town Board could be shaken loose from Mr. McCarthy.

Something else arose at about this time that suggested Mr. McCarthy's hold on the town was weakening; in mid-June, a plan was proposed to supply the town with natural gas. Sidney Village had already approved the plan.

The proposal was only to pipe natural gas to customers the way most towns get it -- not drill for it -- but it provoked stiff and broad-based opposition. This in turn prepared the ground for the appearance by mid-summer of a group called Friends of Sustainable Sidney that's opposed to natural gas drilling Sustainable Sidney was also opposed to building a natural gas supply line into Sidney, and its position attracted plenty of support.

Sustainable Sidney was started by Loddie Marsh and Ray Lewis, who retired to a 200-acre farm in Sidney 11 years ago. Ray Lewis was a Philadelphia Police captain; he become something of a national spokesman for the OWS movement after he appeared at Zuccotti Park in uniform, got arrested, and eventually appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show.

Sustainable Sidney quickly became a major political force in the town. According to Marsh, it began with just a few people going door-to-door, collecting 1,542 homeowner signatures on an anti-fracking petition. The plan was to present the petition to the Town Board at its August meeting (according to the 2000 Census, Sidney has 2,565 households). A request at the meeting that Sidney declare a moratorium on the pipeline question was rejected out of hand by Mr. McCarthy.

Mr. McCarthy was a well-known supporter of the pipeline, and of gas drilling generally, as good for Sidney's economy. And in fairness to Mr. McCarthy, he saw his main writ to rebuild that economy, which had been in decline for decades.

But turning down the moratorium seemed to have turned the tide against Mr. McCarthy generally, says Walter Goodrich, a retired State Trooper who was one of anti-McCarthy Board members elected in November. "We knew that if there was to be any change in the town, it would have to be [done] politically," he says.

And nothing Mr.McCarthy could do seemed to shake what had become deep-seated opposition to him personally. A good indication of that: He got good marks for his emergency management after massive floods hit Sidney in early September, following heavy rains from the remnants of Hurricane Lee forced the Susquehanna River over its banks. But his non-stop work did nothing to cool the opposition.

Faced with this sort of political weather, most people would have put on a smiling face and tried to mollify the voters. Instead Mr. McCarthy doubled down. He tried to push his own slate onto the Sidney Republican Committee during a mid-September Republican primary, only to be stopped by Committee member Lisa French, who pointed out that none of his candidates had been properly nominated.

The result, says Paul Eaton, the new Committee chairman, was a split Committee that endorsed no candidates for the new Town Board. "The Committee's goal is good government, for the town," he says. "In this case we felt the best way to get good government was to allow every person on the Committee to support the (Board candidate) they thought was best."

As a result, Mr. McCarthy had to form his own committee to back his candidates. So as the November elections approached, he and his candidates for re-election to the town Board -- John Schaffer and Paul Hamilton -- were more or less isolated, while his opponents were going from strength to strength.

By October a group calling itself the Sidney Bi-Partisan Coalition had met and endorsed its own, anti-McCarthy slate; Lisa French, running for Town Clerk as a Democrat, and Walt Goodrich on the Conservative line, and Gaby Pysnik on the Democratic, for Town Board.

As an October vote on the pipeline project loomed, Sustainable Sidney raised $2,000 from private donors for a radio campaign, and political cartoons and huge signs began plastering the town -- deeply unusual events in Sidney, or in the area generally.Mr. McCarthy ran ads attacking his opponents as "Downstaters", but his opponents just laughed at them.

"McCarthy was just out-gunned," says Hans Hass.

At this point, Mr. McCarthy proved he wasn't kidding when he said -- as he did repeatedly -- that he wasn't a politician. At the October 13 Town Board meeting, Mr. McCarthy ignored a scheduled comments period, and instead held an immediate vote approving the gas pipeline that had already been approved by the Village. The room exploded.

Mr. McCarthy's candidates didn't have a prayer after that vote. Beating the drum as loudly as possible: Sustainable Sidney. "They were relentless," says Hans Hass.

Not only relentless: Victorious. Mr. McCarthy's candidates were crushed.

The final tally: Out of 2,959 registered voters in Sidney, 1,170 voted. By comparison, 864 voted when Mr. McCarthy was elected in 2009.

Ms. Pysnik and Mr. Goodrich, the Bi-Partisan Committee's two candidates for the Board, got 743 and 662 votes respectively; compared with Paul Hamilton and John Schaffer, Mr. McCarthy's candidates, who got 377 and 394 votes. Lisa French, meanwhile, got 757 votes; compared with Elaine Anderson, Mr. McCarthy's candidate for Town clerk, who got 408 votes.

A fair indication of how far Mr. McCarthy's political fortunes have fallen: After the September floods, Amphenol Aerospace Inc.'s plant in Sidney was badly damaged. The plant, which has been owned by various manufacturers since the 1920s, employs about 1,200 people. It, together with a MeadWestVaco plant that employs 750, are Sidney's economy.

News that Amphenol might consider relocating naturally set off quite a flurry at every government level to keep Amphenol in Sidney, and they succeeded. But when the deal was announced, Mr. McCarthy was nowhere to be found in the press reports. Instead, they quoted Village Mayor, Andrew Matviak.

Meanwhile, Sustainable Sidney hasn't faded into the woodwork; its Facebook page is filled with discussions about next steps in its fight against natural gas development in Sidney -- including continuing pursuit of the gas-related moratorium dismissed in August.

And Amir Celoski's well-tended grave still sits in the dergah's cemetery in Sidney's rolling hills.

"McCarthy's hold is broken, and his days are numbered as far as controlling the Board goes," says Susan Sklenarik, chair of Sidney's Democratic Committee. "He's been knocked way back."

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