Historically, the Scarsdale Board of Trustees aims for consensus, but Trustee Matthew Callaghan has voted in opposition to the rest of the group on several major projects. He opposed hiring a specific law firm to assist with the Freightway redevelopment plan, and he opposed aspects of the $3.5 million Popham Road firehouse renovation and the $9.9 million bond for the renovation of the Scarsdale Public Library.
With his second two-year term concluding in March, The Inquirer asked Callaghan about his contrarian approach to governing.
On compliance vs. consensus
I do a lot of deep thinking about these things. The thing you have to be concerned about as a trustee is the difference between consensus and compliance. Complicity is whether or not you can participate in a decision, how clear you are on an issue and what [is] the personal risk. It happens when a trustee loses sight of what they’re supposed to do. Consensus is supposed to be coming together for the common good. We’re stewards of the common good and welfare. Consensus is the board members coming together as a group, making a decision that contributes to the public good and public welfare of Scarsdale. As consensus tightens up, it degenerates into self-confirmation and group delusion and you have to be very careful with that.
There are special interest groups in Scarsdale. These groups are aside from the 17 boards and councils we oversee as trustees, and the 15 neighborhood associations. There are members of the groups who do public good for the community. These are good people, interested in the public good and public welfare of Scarsdale. But there are other groups who are interested in and represent minority interests. That’s what you have to be careful of. That will muck up the depth of perception the trustee has.
On voting contrary to the majority
It has to do with risk. [A] person has to consider what that risk will do to [him] and [his] reputation in the village. If one person, or one group, [is] telling the village what they should set as the risk level, if that risk level doesn’t turn out, we get stuck with the bill. And I’ve witnessed that a couple of times in the four years I’ve been here.
The firehouse is one example. I told them not to do this. I didn’t like the firm they hired. I said they were structural engineers. I vetted them, and found they didn’t work on a firehouse before.
“Firehouse” [magazine]is the national, technical resource of the fire service. Every year, they vote for the best firehouses — renovated or newly constructed. And they chose 39 this year. Not one had a structural engineer as a contractor. They were all American Institute of Architects (AIA)-certified architects. If you look through this and found what [other municipalities] got for their $4.5 million, which is a million over the $3.5 million we were given, you would be astounded. The Scarsdale library [project] has some overruns, but that’s their dime. It doesn’t bother me, they’re raising money like crazy. For the firehouse, [the village] went $800,000 into the general fund before the shovel was put in the ground because [the contractor] made a mistake and we had to pay for it. That’s the level of risk that I don’t like and that we get stuck with.
On board resolutions
Ninety-nine percent of the time, I think the resolutions are written very carefully. Most of the time, they’re on point. … We do a lot of right things in Scarsdale, and I’m proud of that. Some of them we don’t do well — believe me, they’re bloopers, [such as] the revaluation and what’s going on with the firehouse. For the most part, Scarsdale does the right thing and [is] good at it.
On the role of mayor and trustees
The mayor has to preside, keep the balance between complicity and consensus. And he has to prevail, he has to nudge the board, saying they should look at this. … Trustees need to be independent, partial, collegial, get along with fellow trustees and mayor and above all, must have courage. A mayor has to preside, look over things, calm people down and prevail. [Mayor] Dan Hochvert is very good at that. He’s very humble and patient and fits that bill very well.
On arriving at a decision
I do deep thinking, I don’t want to disturb the apple cart. I don’t have nervousness for myself. I do a lot of thinking, and I’m convinced it’s the right thing to do. … A public figure swings between requiem and redemption. Requiem is when a trustee feels they made a bad decision. That decision may or may not have affected the welfare and good of Scarsdale, but it affected the trustee. Sometimes we get stuck in requiem, and that’s not a nice place to be. Sometimes we get in redemption, and that’s a beautiful place to be. It swings back and forth, from meeting to meeting, from issue to issue. I think the staff we have here gives me the ability to do some deep thinking.
On whether to discuss one’s vote in advance
No, I did that once. I wish on the board level, when it goes on television, there would be more debate, more back and forth.
On discussions at committee meetings
I don’t think there’s any secrecy, nobody’s hiding or going behind people’s backs.
On the legal counsel for Freightway
I don’t like the law firm the village hired to do Freightway. We interviewed two and the board knew who I favored. The firm I favored has 28 lawyers in it, the one they chose has five. I’ve seen what [the law firm that wasn’t hired] [did] up in Beacon. One of their lawyers acted as a village attorney for [the city of] Beacon, and they did a complete revitalization of the downtown center.
On the value of consensus voting
As long as it doesn’t tighten up and degenerate into self-confirmation. That would be someone backing someone and saying, “I’m right because this is right” and [that person] doesn’t look at the whole picture. I have a voice in the back of my head that will tell me if it isn’t right.
On community response to his voting
I’ve heard good and bad on how I vote. I have no qualms about what I do.