July 17 – 60 years ago; A conflict between Italians and Poles at Amsterdam’s City Hall

Frank Martuscello
Frank Martuscello

Exactly sixty years ago on the evening of July 17, 1956, a Common Council Meeting took place at Amsterdam City Hall presided over by then Mayor Frank Martuscello. He had won election to that office the previous November on the pledge that “he would watch spending like a hawk” and he said the resolution he hoped to have the Council approve that evening was part of fulfilling that pledge. That resolution stated that the City was going to abolish the position of Superintendent of Streets, a job that had been held by veteran Rug City civil servant John Gomulka, who had been receiving his paycheck from City Hall since President Hoover served in the White House. The position paid $8,500 per year.

This happened at a time when the Bigelow Sanford rug mills had just abandoned Amsterdam taking its huge payroll with it  and the resulting drop in city property tax revenues was a huge problem for Martuscello. But two Polish alderman from the other party were not convinced the elimination of Gomulka’s position was anything more than a thinly disguised move by an Italian politician to get rid of a Polish employee.

John Gomulka
John Gomulka

At the time the Council was split evenly split between the two parties, 4-4. Three of those democrats were of Polish extraction. They included Clement Moskal of the Fourth Ward, Alexander Sliva of the Third and John Ciulick, who represented the Third Ward. The fourth Democrat on that Council was John McGrattan, who happened to be on a family vacation that evening so the Republican’s held an important 4-3 majority.

When the resolution to abolish Gomulka’s job came up for discussion, Alderman Moskal passionately cited Gomulka’s long service to the city and said by seeking to abolish it, Martuscello was copying the failed policies of a Republican president (Eisenhower) and Governor (Dewey) who both had recently attempted to cut their government’s way out of budget deficits. Then Sliva stood up and got to the heart of the matter. He angrily pointed out that Martuscello had just created a commissioner of public works position with a salary of $8,000 per year and appointed Albert McCaffrey to it and also a planning engineer’s position and appointed Amsterdam native and fellow Italian-American John Pepe to it at an annual salary of $5,000. He claimed Gomulka had been handling the responsibilities of both these new jobs for the last ten years at a salary of $5,800. He then accused Martuscello of being a “rascist” by hiring a “Pepe” and firing a “Gomulka.”

john pepe345
John Pepe

That accusation got Martuscello’s blood boiling and he gaveled down the opposition. A motion to table the  position termination resolution was defeated along party lines 4-3 and the resolution then passed, 4-3, and Gomulka was out of a city job. As it turned out, Pepe’s career with the city did not last long. He soon switched over to the county government, where he eventually became Commissioner of Public Works. Gomulka would be elected Mayor of Amsterdam eleven years later.



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