New Berne board makes sweeping changes

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

On New Year’s Day, Councilman Dennis Palow, center, gives “special thanks” to reinstated building inspector Chance Townsend.

BERNE — On New Year’s Day, the Berne Town board made swift and sweeping changes. Policies on liaisons and weapons were reversed, appointments to the conservation and Switzkill Farm boards are on hold, and the town board has adopted a new place and schedule for its meetings.

The board will meet in the community center, instead of town hall, to conduct town business every other month. The alternate months will be used as a public forum where board members will listen.

The board also set a public hearing for March 11 for a law that would make Berne a “Second Amendment Sanctuary Town.” The bill outlines a series of state and federal regulations, such as registering firearms, and says, “Any such ‘Unlawful Act’ is invalid in Town of Berne and shall not be recognized by Town of Berne … .”

The odd man out at the Jan. 1 meeting was Councilman Joel Willsey, the board’s lone Democrat on a board that had been dominated by Democrats for decades; he sometimes abstained and other times voted “no” on resolutions that the other four members passed without discussion.

The meeting opened with the newly elected board members — Bonnie Conklin, a Conservative, and Mathew Harris, an Independence Party member — taking the oath of office. Both also ran on the GOP line.

Berne’s Republican resurgence, spearheaded by its party chairman, Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger, brought two Republicans to the board after the 2017 election: Supervisor Sean Lyons and Councilman Dennis Palow, both new to town office. In the last two years, many controversial town-board votes fell along party lines, with the Democrats winning, 3 to 2.

Lyons told The Enterprise after the half-hour meeting, “We’re  not a Republican majority. We’re a group of like-minded people who want to work for the betterment of Berne. We want to be positive and we hope we can be.”

Democrats outnumber Republicans in Berne by nearly 2 to 1.

 


 

 

Townsend restored

Among the New Year’s reversals from the previously Democrat-dominated board, the new board restored Chance Townsend as the town’s code-enforcement officer.

“Councilman Palow and I did not accept his resignation,” Lyons told The Enterprise.

When Townsend resigned last February, he told The Enterprise, “Several town board members don’t take this department seriously and don’t take my job seriously and don’t think that a full-time position is warranted and I’m not going to stay here and be under the scrutiny of all these things without having the necessary tools to conduct this job.”

The Democrats on the board then had noted that the previous code-enforcement officer did the job at 15 hours a week, the same hours at which Townsend was hired, and had checked with a labor-relations consultant who believed that a town the size of Berne did not need 34 hours for the job.

In 2018, less than three months into his new position, Townsend had caused controversy by asking the then-tenants of the retreat house at the town-owned Switzkill Farm to leave the premises after he discovered smoke detectors and a sprinkler system weren’t working. The town had bought the property from Buddhists and the two long-time tenants, both Buddhists, were not allowed to return for weeks, and one declined to come back.

Townsend was later the subject of complaints by two different residents: Berne farmer Emily Vincent, who Townsend had incorrectly said violated the zoning code by building a temporary greenhouse without a permit; and Thomas Crary, who has threatened to sue the town after he said Townsend and previous building inspectors had neglected to enforce the town’s zoning code, causing him to receive under-value offers for his house, which he wanted to sell.

Townsend had maintained that he needed more hours, more staff, and better tools to address his heavy workload.

Emily Vincent, who had not completed her five-year term on the planning board, was demoted at the Jan. 1 meeting to being an alternate. She is facing brain surgery on Jan. 22, she said. “They fired me without even contacting me,” Vincent told The Enterprise on Wednesday evening. “I was the last woman on the board. And they made false allegations,” she said, referring to her building a greenhouse, which was legal.

According to New York State Town Law, appointed planning board members are to fill out their full terms.

The law states, “The town board shall have the power to remove, after public hearing, any member of the planning board for cause.”

No public hearing was held to remove Vincent and no cause was given, she said.

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Thomas Spargo was named chairman of the Berne Planning Board at the New Year’s Day reorganizational meeting. 

 

Spargo appointed

On Jan. 1, the town board appointed Thomas Spargo as chairman of the planning board. He had not been a board member and replaces Todd Schwendeman in the post.

In 2009, Spargo was sentenced to 27 months in prison, guilty of extortion and bribery for orchestrating a plan to solicit funds from lawyers with cases before him as a State Supreme Court judge in order to pay his own legal bills.

Spargo’s downfall began in 1999 with his race for town justice in Berne, which he won. He was later accused of judicial misconduct by the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct for, among other things, “offering items of value to induce voters to vote for him.” His mounting legal defense fees are what prompted him to lean on lawyers for funds.

A nationally known expert on election law, Spargo, a Republican, was also charged by the commission with engaging in “prohibited activity,” the reason being that, in November of 2000, he attended the governmental sessions for the recount of presidential votes in Florida, as an observer for the Republican Party.

The commission stated that Spargo “participated in a loud and obstructive demonstration against the recount process outside the office of the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections” with “the aim of disrupting the process.”

“It was unquestionably historic,” Spargo told The Enterprise upon his return. “I was the chief lawyer on the ground.”

He unsuccessfully challenged the commission in federal court, arguing its allegation had to do with the exercise of his First Amendment liberties.

In 2006, Spargo lost his challenge on appeal and was removed from the bench. Upon conviction, Spargo had been stripped of his license to practice law.

Lyons told The Enterprise that he was aware of Spargo’s conviction but that he had wanted him as the planning board chairman because of “his experience in law and government.”

Lyons said, “We felt he could help us with the new direction of the board, getting more business in town.”

When The Enterprise approached Spargo after the New Year’s meeting, he declined to comment, stating, “I haven’t met the members of the planning board. It would be discourteous to speak to you before I speak to them.”

 

New official paper

The board, with Willsey abstaining, named the Times Union as its official newspaper, replacing The Enterprise for the required publication of legal notices.

According to the latest federal census data, from 2010, Berne has 2,794 residents living in 1,099 households. A third of those households, 354, subscribe to The Enterprise; additionally, The Enterprise sells about 75 papers at newsstands in Berne each week.

The Enterprise regularly covers Berne while the Times Union does not.

The Enterprise rate for legal notices is 39.5 cents per line for a single insertion; the Times Union’s is 75 cents per line. 

Lyons told The Enterprise he hadn’t checked on prices or circulation. His reason for wanting to make the Times Union Berne’s official paper, he said, was that, while campaigning, he learned, “People say they don’t read The Enterprise.”

 

Meetings

By unanimous vote, the Berne board agreed to move its meeting venue to the town’s community center rather than meeting at the town hall. This will include zoning board and planning board meetings as well as town board meetings.

“There’s more parking,” Harris said of the community center.

Lyons agreed and added it was “a better space” with a public-address system.

The board also agreed to reconfigure its meeting schedule. Regular town-board meetings, where the board members conduct town business, will alternate with meetings that will serve as public forums where board members will listen to residents.

“We’ll give six months to the residents each year,” Lyons said at the meeting, calling this “a positive change.”

Because of that change, the board passed a resolution allowing the supervisor to pay all town expenses without prior audit.

Willsey abstained from the vote, saying he didn’t understand it.

After the meeting, Lyons explained to The Enterprise that the resolution was because “bills still need to be paid” on a monthly basis even though, going forward, the town board every other month won’t be having a traditional meeting to review the bills.

 

Liaisons

The board also voted to rescind a policy that establishes liaisons to various committees and boards. Willsey voted no.

Last February, the Democrats on the board had adopted the policy after Lyons, at the 2019 reorganizational meeting, had done away with some liaisons. Lyons had said then that he wanted department heads to communicate directly with the town board.

Democratic Councilwoman Karen Schimmer who, along with Democratic Councilwoman Dawn Jordan did not run for re-election in November, had drafted the resolution to emphasize the role that liaisons play in town government, and how departments may consult liaisons on things like town law.

“It helps provide a healthy, effective, and efficient mode of communication,” she said at the time.

After this year’s Jan. 1 meeting, Lyons noted that some liaisons are being kept — for the library, the zoning and planning boards, and the seniors. He also noted that Bonnie Conklin will serve as a liaison to the Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools where she works as a teacher’s aid.

 

Switzkill Farm

Among the boards that will no longer have liaisons are the Switzkill Farm board and the conservation board, Lyons said.

In the board’s first resolution, making annual appointments, the word “Hold” rather than a person’s name was written next to the appointments for the conservation board chair, two conservation board members, the Switzkill Farm board chair, and the Switzkill Farm board vice chair.

Asked about the reason for the holds, Lyons told The Enterprise that the town board may decide three different groups — the conservation board, the Switzkill Farm board, and the youth council — should be merged.

The town, under the leadership of Democratic Supervisor Kevin Crosier, paid $475,000 in 2014 for what is now called Switzkill Farm, acquiring 350 acres and the buildings on it, including two large buildings — one that served as a retreat house and another as a gathering place, known as The Lodge, for the Buddhist group that had owned it.

Grants, mostly from the Open Space Institute, and funding from Albany County provided all but $112,500 of that total cost. The remainder came out of the town’s capital projects fund.

The purchase was controversial, and Republicans have used it as a campaign issue. Expulsion of two Buddhists tenets in 2018 had also been controversial.

Lyons told The Enterprise after the Jan. 1 meeting, “The new board wants to verify we’re following the code and that money is properly spent for programs.”

The Switzkill Farm board has sponsored a variety of festivals and hosted a summer camp, among other open-to-the-public activities.

Asked if he or the board is considering the sale of Switzkill Farm, Lyons said, “I find that to be ridiculous. We’re not going to sell.”

He said, rather, that the thought was “to streamline into one board” the farm, youth, and conservation boards.

 

Security

In a 4-to-1 vote — with Willsey voting against — the town board passed a resolution to rescind a recently-adopted weapons policy. At the September town board meeting, the three Democrats — Republicans Palow and Lyons were absent — passed a resolutions that required people pass through a metal detector to attend town board meetings.

Willsey had felt threatened by Palow at the July meeting, and the three Democrats wanted a metal detector used for meetings, which Lyons had declined. The Democratic board members, citing safety concerns, did not attend the Aug. 28 meeting.

Lyons had shared confidential emails from Willsey with a conservative talk-radio host who had posted on a local television news station’s Facebook page that Berne’s Democratic board members had labeled Palow, a veteran, as a “mass killer” and were “labelling all Combat veterans as being damaged and killers.”

Although there was no evidence of this — and the Democrats vehemently denied it — the post caused a frenzy on social media, swelling attendance at the August meeting, drawing people from outside of Berne. Many veterans and supporters of veterans rallied behind Palow.

“I refuse to have the residents go through a metal detector to come to the town board meeting — to their town board meeting,” Lyons told the crowd on Aug. 28.

At the Sept. 11 meeting, the three Democratic board members passed two resolutions that put the metal detector, which the town already has and uses for its court sessions, in use for town board meetings, and also for zoning board and planning board meetings if the people who chair those boards were to call for it.

 

Transparency

At the Jan. 1 meeting, the town board, with Willsey abstaining, also passed resolutions limiting board members’ sharing of information.

The first says that “topics and discussions discussed in executive session are not to be discussed outside of the session except in open meetings as prescribed by law.”

New York’s Open Meetings Law does not prohibit elected board members from talking about what was discussed in closed sessions and, while the law allows certain topics to be discussed privately, it does require this.

Asked about the “prescribed by law” portion of the resolution, Lyons told The Enterprise that Berne could pass its own law.

A second resolution — for which Willsey also abstained — says that “emails and discussion not covered by open meetings law between Council members shall remain confidential and property of the Town of Berne.”

The town’s attorney, William Conboy, recommended, as Conklin read the resolution, that the phrase “not subject to FOIL,” referencing the state’s Freedom of Information Law, be added, which the board did.

Palow then read a resolution that town business could not be shared in print or on social media, to which Willsey also voted no.

Lyons told The Enterprise after the meeting that, in the past, “We’ve had emails that are not FOILable shared.”

 

New initiatives

Referring to the BKW superintendent of schools, Timothy Mundell, Conklin spoke enthusiastically about “a lot of projects Dr. Mundell” wants to work with Berne and also the other Hilltowns to accomplish. She mentioned senior housing and shared water.

Lyons concluded the session, telling the packed room that the new board would be looking at a town center, municipal water, festivals, and producing a newsletter. He said he is looking for committee members to work on those initiatives.

Asked about the town center, Lyons told The Enterprise, “We’re behind the times.”

He cited the Knox Town Hall as an example of a building that housed town offices and town court as well as providing community meeting space.

The push for municipal water in Berne, he said, was to build a senior-housing project on Canaday Hill road, across the Berne firehouse.

Developer Jeff Thomas first proposed senior housing in Berne in 2006, but required municipal sewer, which Berne has since developed, and water. Lyons said on Wednesday that Thomas is still interested in the project, but needs public water.

“The school has a massive water supply,” he said of the nearby BKW campus on the Helderberg Trail.

Lyons said that working with the school to accomplish that would fit with the state and county initiatives for shared services.

Further, Lyons told The Enterprise, “We want to bring fun stuff back to the town.” This would include seasonal festivals as well as honoring  Pvt. First Class Glenn R. Gilbert, who was killed in Vietnam 50 years ago.

Berne may also join other local towns in honoring its veterans with banners, Lyons said, noting that Conklin and one of her neighbors this year initiated Christmas decorations in town.

Palow made concluding remarks at the meeting, giving “special thanks” to Spargo and Chance Townsend who was willing “to help the town especially after what he’s been through in the last year and a half with the other board members.”

Lyons closed the New Year’s meeting with these words: “This board is here for you… It’s going to be a great year.”

More Hilltowns News

  • The Berne Town Board’s lone Democrat, Joel Willsey, has been censured following an investigation into allegations of discrimination against veterans made by Republican board member Dennis Palow.

  • Frank Bryant, of Westerlo, was arrested at his home on June 20 after police say he assaulted a man with a pipe on the side of County Route 404 in Westerlo, leaving the victim with broken teeth and a facial laceration.

  • To close an expected budget gap, two Republicans on the Westerlo Town Board are recommending cutting the Democratic supervisor’s two staffers after the Democrats and one tie-breaking Republican authorized the layoff of two of the highway department’s roughly seven workers. 

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