Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Chester A. Smith, 2: Fighting Peekskill’s City Hall


The honeymoon of Chester Smith and the newly elected Mackay administration in 1940 was short-lived. As in many marriages, the split came over money.
During the campaign, Mackay and his Democratic Common Council candidates had promised economies in government. Once in office, however, they surprised Smith and other supporters by proposing a 1941 Peekskill budget that called for spending a whopping $766,777.06.
Moreover, they proposed hefty raises for city officials: a 43% jump in salary for the city judge (from $2,800 to $4,000), a 33% boost for the corporation counsel (from $3,000 to $4,000), and a 20% increase for the city clerk (from $2,500 to $3,000). The administration also proposed to create the post of deputy comptroller with a salary of $3,600 for newly elected comptroller Albert E. Cruger.
Democratic council members made another tactical mistake; this one fatal. Chester Smith tended to monopolize and even dominate council meetings. Council members began to ignore him and disregard his suggestions and requests.
Smith's Non-Partisan Citizens Committee declared its opposition to the new administration's proposed budget. It bought newspaper advertising and mounted a direct-mail campaign that reached all 2,671 eligible voters.

The council countered with a series of high-handed tactics. Instead of scheduling the budget vote at the traditional location, the Peekskill High School gymnasium, they stirred up a hornet's nest by choosing the inappropriate and much smaller three-year-old Municipal Building.
To further discourage voter turnout, the council set the time of the voting for the brief 90-minute period between 7:30 and 9 p.m., Tuesday, December 3, 1940. Only two voting machines were installed. The new administration was obviously making it difficult for voters to show their feelings about the budget.
The strategy backfired. Despite these roadblocks, 622 taxpayers turned out on a cold winter night. A line three-deep snaked its way out of the Municipal Building's rotunda and down the curved staircase onto Main Street. Many waited for hours to vote; some gave up and returned home.
To accommodate the waiting crowd, voting continued until after midnight. In the final tally, an overwhelming 80% said no. The actual numbers were 499 against the budget and only 123 in favor of it.
"Last night's election was a definite repudiation of the present city administration," opined a Peekskill Evening Star editorial the next day. The paper followed this with another strong editorial calling for selfish political maneuvering to stop.

Fighting City Hall
Immediately after the vote, Chester Smith called upon Mayor James Mackay and council member Horton, who had both defended the budget, to resign. Mackay was no neophyte in politics--he had been Peekskill's president in the mid-1930s when it was still a village. An executive with the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency at 10 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, Mackay decided the game wasn't worth the candle and stepped aside.
In January of 1941, the weekly Highland Democrat hailed Chester Smith as its "Man of the Year." Editor George E. Briggs praised him as both a "king maker" and a "king toppler."
The Common Council named a council member, 65-year-old banker William T. Horton, to serve out the remainder of Mackay's term.
 Horton was the retired manager of the Fifth Avenue branch of the Corn Exchange Bank in New York City. He had chaired the committee that framed Peekskill's city charter, had served on the Peekskill Board of Education and would later become Peekskill's city historian in 1946.
The resounding defeat of the 1941 budget had an instant salutary effect. A chastened Common Council suddenly found $19,010.90 that could be cut from the budget, reducing it to $747,766.16. Chester Smith and the Non-Partisan Citizens Committee quickly gave their blessing to the new budget. A second budget vote was scheduled for Monday, December 30, 1940.
This time the high school gymnasium was the polling place, and remained open an ample eleven hours--from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Surprisingly, the same number of voters--622--turned out. Equally surprising, the split was again 499 to 123--only this time the majority approved the budget. The taxpayers had made their point.
Budgets, of course, are an annual chore. In 1941, a 1942 budget totaling $705,280 was proposed by the Democrats. Again an unhappy Smith went into action, mounting an anti-budget campaign that called for a reduction of $65,772.80, cutting expenditures to $639,507.20.
Non-Partisan Citizens Committee advertising included a sample ballot pointedly showing voters which lever to pull down to vote against the proposed budget. The council stubbornly refused to reduce the budget.

The Voters Speak
But more than the budget was at stake. Each party also had a slate of candidates running for mayor, council members and other city offices. On Tuesday, November 4, 1931, 1,357 Peekskill residents went to the polls. A convincing 71% rejected the budget.
Voters also voiced their displeasure with the Democrats. The entire Republican slate was swept into office, including 53-year-old Ralph F. Hopkins, a well-known local architect, as mayor, and six Republican council members.
In addition to many local residences, Mayor-elect Hopkins had designed the village's Colonial Revival-style Municipal Building in 1936, and such landmarks as the Masonic Temple (gutted by a disastrous fire on January 20, 2001), and the Guardian Annex. In 1950, he would design Genung's department store, which later became the Howland department store and now houses offices.
Before a new 1942 budget was put to a vote, Chester Smith reiterated his demand that $65,772.80 be cut. Knowing that the new administration would have to live within any budget approved by taxpayers, the lame-duck Common Council outdid themselves. They cut items totaling $77,838--18% more than Smith had demanded.
Smith and his committee gave the reduced budget of $627,442 their blessing. Voting was set for Tuesday, December 23, 1941. Only 385 voters showed up at the polls, but 73% of them approved the budget.
He was also instrumental in securing for the Field Library the 13-room Victorian house at 124 Union Avenue, the former Dwight Stiles Herrick residence. The house badly needed repairs, and taxes were owed by the owner, Mrs. Ida M. Adams. When Peekskill began an action because of nonpayment of taxes, Chester Smith raised the money to pay them by selling a portion of the property. He also raised $10,000 to renovate the house and an additional $13,500 as an endowment fund. After extensive repairs, the Herrick house--now the Peekskill Museum--was opened to the public on May 17, 1946.
Mayor Ralph F. Hopkins would serve three two-year terms. The Hopkins administration eventually alienated Chester Smith. In the 1947 election campaign, Chester Smith and his Non-Partisan Citizens Committee retaliated by backing the Democrats. Peekskill voters roundly rejected the Republicans in November. Under Mayor John N. Schneider, the Democrats were returned to power.

Golden Years
Chester Smith had always been a lover of books. A prolific author in his own right, he created dozens of pamphlets and brochures on a variety of subjects ranging from narrow local issues to the question of Prohibition. He began his writing career with a novel published in 1913. The American Comedy, about Putnam County’s political families, is now a collector’s item.
Over the years, Chester Smith had been the prime mover in Peekskill's Friendly Town Association. He donated two parcels of undeveloped land to the Association and convinced others to do the same. The result was seven privately owned parks open to the public. At the time, Peekskill only had six city parks. When Peekskill decided that the Association's parks would have to remain on the tax rolls, he offered to give them to the city. Peekskill declined. Smith decided to sell the parklands he had contributed.
In 1954, the Drew Seminary for Young Women, a private secondary school in Carmel, N.Y., declared bankruptcy. Smith, a trustee of the Methodist school, was appalled that it was unable to pay its debts. Legally, the school was free of any obligation to pay, but he felt that the debt should be paid in full.
"I got a good price for them," he crowed. "But I could have done better. I insisted in putting in the deeds that the property never be used for the manufacture or sale of spirits. A lot of prospective buyers balked at that." He added, "I couldn't help it, though. I'm a good Methodist. Been fighting the liquor people all my life.” He used the proceeds, $43,000, to pay the unpaid portion of the Drew Seminary's debt.
To everyone's surprise, in the mid-1950s, Chester Smith decided to become a lawyer. At the age of 74, he graduated from the New York Law School on June 18, 1959, with the degree of Bachelor of Laws. Following graduation, he was injured in an automobile accident, suffered a heart attack and twice failed to pass the bar examination.

Failing Health
A lifelong bachelor, in his later years, Chester Smith lived alone after the death of his mother and later his sister, Edith M. Smith, in 1950. On July 24, 1968, he fell in the basement of his home at 730 Hudson Avenue, after suffering what may have been a mild heart attack.
Four years later, he died in the morning of September 29, 1972, at the West Ledge Extended Care Facility on East Main Street in Peekskill, less than two months short of his 88th birthday. His obituary made the front page of that day’s edition of the Peekskill Evening Star. It revealed that there were no immediate survivors, and burial would be in Peekskill’s Hillside Cemetery.
Peekskill owes much to Chester A. Smith. Without his untiring efforts, it would not have come into existence as a city when it did. He left his mark on Peekskill in the form of numerous plaques and memorials to its famous citizens that dot the city.
Chester Smith's voluminous papers, including 88 diaries diligently-kept from 1897 to 1967, were deposited with the Syracuse University Library. If anyone could take satisfaction from a life spent in service to a community, it was Chester Allen Smith.

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