Berne residents deserve a well-informed code enforcer and councilman

To the Editor:

Emily Vincent is owed an apology.

Ms. Vincent was publicly excoriated at the Nov. 14 Berne Town Board meeting for erecting a building without a permit, allegedly defying a town ordinance. The charge was at once untrue, and erroneously raised in a completely inappropriate setting.

Ms. Vincent applied for a building permit to erect a temporary greenhouse on her farm in May of 2018. The greenhouse was needed to grow and propagate vegetables. It is not a “permanent structure” having no continuous foundation, and a short life span.

Soon after applying for the permit, Ms. Vincent learned that the Ag & Market Executive Law, subsection 372, defined temporary greenhouses, the structure she erected — as “specialized agricultural equipment” — and states that “temporary greenhouses that are specifically designed, constructed and used for the culture and propagation of horticultural commodities are exempt from requirements for building permits.”

Ms. Vincent provided the code-enforcement officer [Chance Townsend] with her source of information, and withdrew her application.

The code-enforcement officer did not respond to her at the time to discuss the withdrawal, nor has he contacted her since. He did not cite her with a violation. Ms. Vincent assumed the code-enforcement officer understood the law and accepted her reasons for withdrawing her application.

Councilman Dennis Palow, at the November town board meeting, and for no obvious reason, vehemently denounced Ms. Vincent for her purported “refusal” to pay for the building permit that she had withdrawn in May. He proposed that her alleged “refusal” to do so was reason to remove her from the planning board.

His allegation was wrong. Not only had Ms. Vincent expressed her desire to get a building permit, she also explained her reasons for withdrawing it based on a law which Mr. Palow had not bothered to research before maligning her.

The code-enforcement officer, who was in the audience when Mr. Palow delivered his statement, had provided only Mr. Palow, one of five town board members, with a report from his office dated May 2018, six months earlier. In that report, the officer erroneously stated Ms. Vincent was in violation of the town code, but it contained no reference to Ms. Vincent’s explanation for withdrawing her request, nor did it indicate that he had researched Ag & Market laws to verify or disprove her assertions.

He did not dispute, and made no attempt to clarify or refute, Mr. Palow’s characterization of Ms. Vincent, though the officer knew why Ms. Vincent had submitted and withdrawn her permit request. The officer allowed Mr. Palow to use an outdated and erroneous report as justification for Mr. Palow’s condemnation of a private citizen in a public forum.

The situation was reprehensible, an unsolicited attack on a resident who responsibly followed the law, but was nonetheless targeted for derision. Not only was the accusation false, it was also contrary to the town board practice of retaining the privacy of any resident involved in a conflict.

It should be noted here that we contacted Dr. Bob Somers, of the New York State Department of Ag & Markets, for verification that temporary greenhouses are not classified as buildings. Dr. Somers provided us with documentation that confirmed temporary greenhouses are classified as agricultural equipment and, as such, do not need building permits.

The fee Mr. Palow accused Ms. Vincent of not paying, is the permit application fee for agricultural buildings, not agricultural equipment — there is no fee for agricultural equipment. Had the code-enforcement officer done this research in May, when Ms. Vincent withdrew her application, this whole situation would have been averted.

We are concerned this episode occurred at all, much less publicly during a town board meeting. We are dismayed that Councilman Palow seized on the incomplete and inaccurate report, and without doing any research or speaking with Ms. Vincent, used the outdated account to disparage and demean her.

We are equally concerned that the town’s code-enforcement officer failed to research Ag & Market laws at the time Ms. Vincent withdrew her application, and that he fostered Mr. Palow’s misperception of her actions with a flawed report.

We question why the officer chose to supply one town board member with his erroneous report to the exclusion of all other town board members, and why, after six months during which the issue languished, he allowed the derogatory public accusation of Ms. Vincent to take place.

Moreover, we are distressed that for the six months, between the time of her withdrawal and the November meeting, he did not contact Ms. Vincent once.

Berne residents deserve an official, well-informed, timely response from the code enforcer. Berne residents also deserve a well-informed councilman who strives to help residents, exercising due diligence to carefully examine and inform his understanding of situations.

We expect both to respect the privacy of residents involved in controversial matters. This did not happen in Ms. Vincent’s case. Instead, she was publicly accused of wrongdoing based on an incorrect and inadequate understanding of Ag & Market regulations.

Emily Vincent is owed an apology. We urge both Mr. Palow and the code-enforcement officer to apologize to Ms. Vincent personally, and publicly, at the next town board meeting.

With thanks to H. Rose Schneider for her comprehensive report [The Altamont Enterprise, Dec. 27, 2018: “Berne Democrats say planning board member was ‘attacked with no basis’”] detailing the Nov. 14 Town Board meeting.

Karen Schimmer

Dawn G. Jordan

Joel Willsey

Members

Berne Town Council

More Letters to the Editor