By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO January 9, 2004 Longtime County Attorney Ira Cohen officially lost his job Tuesday after the Democrats took control of the Sullivan County Legislature.
A vote of 7-0, with two abstentions by legislators Leni Binder and Jodi Goodman, approved his replacement by Sam Yasgur at Tuesdays reorganizational meeting in Monticello.
Until just four days before the meeting, Cohen and Republican legislators said they did not know if a replacement was in the works. Democrats had interviewed Yasgur without their knowledge, they said, and decided to hire him with their 5-4 majority.
Cohen commented that while he considered himself as lucky as Lou Gehrig to serve with so many fine people, he was also getting a tough break.
"I am sorry that the new leadership has decided that change for the sake of change, rather than for the sake of improvement, is desirable," he said in remarks to those assembled for the reorganization.
He quoted a mentor who once told him, "The longer you stay in government and the more you accomplish, the more enemies you will make."
Sullivan County legislators had differing opinions on his removal.
Leni Binder believed that "Ira was replaced because he did his job. In two instances, doing his job came into conflict with a new legislator and the new chairman."
Those two matters, according to Binder, were "the elimination of a position in the Board of Elections and the elimination of Ron Hiatts position as managing attorney for social services. Neither were his votes or actions."
Timothy Hill, Sullivan County Elections Commissioner, brought suit against the county to stop the cut of a clerk in his department. Cohen defended the county and defeated the lawsuit.
"His job is to defend the Legislature," said Binder.
Chris Cunningham, the new Sullivan County Legislature Chairman, explained his reasoning for picking a new county attorney.
"It was time for a change. We felt there was a need for someone with new ideas, he said. We found somebody who is really skilled."
When asked if there was something in particular that Cohen did or didnt do, Cunningham replied, "Thats all I am going to say about it."
Legislator Ron Hiatt added, "He [Cohen] suggested it was change for the purpose of change. I respectfully disagree."
He said that Yasgur, son of famed Woodstock farmer Max Yasgur, had experience with landfill issues and recycling plants. Hiatt would not respond as to whether Cohen was as qualified to handle these issues.
Legislator Rodney Gaebel called the process for replacing Cohen "flawed."
"I dont think it was a good idea to let him go, Gaebel commented. He has done a great job, he is very knowledgeable, and a great negotiator."
He further explained that "personal feelings of some people played a role in making the change."
Gaebel said he voted for the replacement in order to "keep the legislature united. If I expressed my disappointment . . . it would not be right. Yasgur is a good guy. My vote would not change the outcome."
Cohen, who spent eight years as County Attorney, said he defeated all lawsuits against the county, helped negotiate deals for tax revenue from possible Indian casinos and was proud of netting more than $7.5 million in real property taxes from the Concord Hotel bankruptcy proceedings.
In his final statements, Cohen asked that "the new County Legislature will continue to insist that Native Americans, who wish to have land taken into trust . . . be required to negotiate and execute meaningful and adequate local services agreements with the county and that the Legislature strenuously oppose any who refuse to do so.
He concluded with a story about a plaque that he dedicated to the room everyone was sitting (and standing) in. The plaque reads, "May God grant you the wisdom to discover the right, the will to choose it and the strength to make it endure."