Berne 2021 reorg: Dog catcher reappointed, CEO post left vacant

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

Berne residents display protest messages through Zoom. Residents have been clamoring for public comments to be allowed at every meeting since the town board voted on Jan. 1, 2020 to allow them at only every other regularly scheduled meeting. 

BERNE — The Berne Town Board has made most of its appointments for the year at its Jan. 6 reorganizational meeting, with Jody Jansen’s reappointment as dog-catcher the most notable among them, but left the code-enforcement officer appointment vacant so the board can continue searching for a replacement for Chance Townsend, who was uncertified for the position when he was appointed on Jan. 1 last year.

The board also, in a split vote, appointed a new planning board member to replace sheep farmer Emily Vincent. Last Jan. 1, the board had demoted Vincent to an alternate post in order to appoint Thomas Spargo, a former judge and convicted felon, as chairman of the planning board.

Vincent challenged the decision in State Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor, and retained her post until its expiry on Dec. 31, 2020.


Code-enforcement officer

On Dec. 9, the town board voted to advertise for new candidates for both the code-enforcement and dog-control positions after the New York State Department of State informed The Enterprise that Townsend, who was appointed on Jan. 1 last year, was not properly certified

Townsend applied for the position again and was interviewed, saying that he is certified and that the Department of State records are backlogged, due in part to COVID, resulting in the appearance of a certification lapse. 

However, this is not true; there was in fact a certification lapse.

The Department of State confirmed for The Enterprise that Townsend’s certification was reinstated on Dec. 17, 2020, after he completed the necessary in-service training, but he had held the position illegally for almost the entirety of 2020.

Townsend has not responded to several attempts made by The Enterprise over the past few months to talk to him about the situation.

Supervisor Sean Lyons and Deputy Supervisor Dennis Palow, both Republicans who voted to appoint Townsend for his first tenure as CEO in 2018, and again in 2020, said at the Jan. 6 reorganizational meeting that they were in favor of re-appointing Townsend and made a motion together to do so. 

However, Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin, a Conservative backed by the GOP, and Mathew Harris, an Independent Party member backed by the GOP, abstained from the vote. Harris said that there “were issues with pretty much everyone” that the board interviewed for that position. Councilman Joel Willsey, the board’s lone Democrat and a frequent critic of his colleagues, voted “nay.” 

In addition to Townsend, applicants for the code-enforcement officer position included Timothy Lippert, who has previously served as Berne’s building inspector and currently serves as Rensselaerville’s building inspector and code-enforcement officer, and Kevin Flensted, of Westerlo, who serves as the chief of the Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company and is a plant manager at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, according to his LinkedIn profile. 

All appear on the list of certified code-enforcement officials on a New York State government website.


Dog control

When the board voted in December to advertise for the position of code-enforcement officer, it was unclear why the vote included new advertising for the dog-control officer position as well, since Jansen, while unpopular, was not under the same kind of scrutiny that Townsend was once it was reported that he lacked certification. 

Despite the signal that the board wanted to replace Jansen, he was re-appointed by a vote of 4-to-1, with only Willsey voting “nay.” 

Jansen was first appointed at the town board’s now-infamous 2020 reorganizational meeting, held Jan. 1 last year, replacing long-time dog catcher Cheryl Baitsholts. That appointment was one of the most controversial, and residents slammed the board in meetings, on social media, and in The Altamont Enterprise for replacing a much-beloved public figure with someone who has no known experience with animals. 

Baitsholts has kennels to keep dogs at her home while, with Jansen, the town was looking at building kennels at Switzkill Farm.

In February last year, a Berne resident, Sarah Stonesifer, said that Jansen got overly aggressive with her when he learned that she was sheltering a wounded dog that wandered into her yard. 

“On Jan. 16 at 10:36 a.m., I received a phone call from Berne’s new DCO, Jody Jansen,” Stonesifer told The Enterprise in February. “He identified himself and, instead of offering assistance [with the dog], he threatened me … He threatened to come to my house and forcefully take this dog, which he has no proof is even on my property. 

“And when I refused,” Stonesifer went on, “and informed him he is not welcome on my property, which is posted, he threatened to call the police and have them forcefully enter my home.”


Planning board

To the planning board, the town board appointed Bob Kipper, who will replace Emily Vincent. The appointment passed 4-to-1, with Conklin voting nay, saying she liked Vincent, who had applied. The board also appointed Carl Trichlio as an alternate member.

As planning board chairman, the town board appointed Joe Martin, who joined the planning board only a few months ago, in October, after former planning board member Todd Schwendeman resigned because he was moving to another state.

“Mr. Martin is a smart, successful business owner with a willingness to get involved with and work in his community,” Lyons told The Enterprise in October. 

Martin was named chairman by a vote of 4-to-1, with Willsey questioning why the board would appoint someone with “no experience” and voting “nay.”


Other boards

Appointments to the conservation board were made, including reappoinntment of its chairwoman, Kathleen Moore, and members Nancy Engel, Sue Hawkes-Teeter, and Michaela Fisher.

No appointments were made to the Switzkill Farm Board, which the GOP-backed members of the town board have indicated they want to combine into a general parks and recreation board that would oversee all the town’s recreational properties.



The interview process for the various appointments was apparently fraught with hostility. Vincent, who sought re-appointment to the planning board, told The Enterprise this week that Palow attacked her during her interview for negative posts he claims she made online about Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger, who also serves as chairman of both the local and county Republican Party committees. 

“It was a travesty,” Vincent said of her interview. 

Vincent, who has previously been a target of the GOP, said she hadn’t posted anything negative about Bashwinger — “I wouldn’t be so stupid to do something like that, knowing that they’d come after me,” she said — and Palow declined to show her what post he was referring to. 

Regardless, Palow’s line of attack was severe enough that Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin allegedly told Palow to stop harassing Vincent. 

Conklin declined to comment, and neither Palow nor Lyons could be reached.

Willsey was unable to attend the interviews held that day, and argues that the town board deliberately excluded him.

He had been told when the interview dates were scheduled in early December that he could take part remotely through Zoom, a videoconferencing platform that the town has been using regularly since the coronavirus pandemic complicated in-person meetings. 

However, on the day of the first set of interviews, Lyons sent out an email informing the board that Zoom had been deemed too risky for interviews because of the sensitive information that may be involved, and that all board members would have to come to the town’s community center and take part in the process in person, with candidates still allowed to interview remotely through a traditional phone call with the board members all on speakerphone.

Willsey was unable to attend the in-person interviews because, he told The Enterprise, he’s caring for his elderly father who’s vulnerable to COVID-19. He said that he later called the candidates for town positions — excluding Townsend, “a political operative who has delegitimized” the position, Willsey said, and Jansen — and spoke to all but one, who never returned his call. 

Lyons could not be reached for clarification on what specific security concerns led to the last-minute reconfiguration of the interviews. Zoom and other video-conferencing apps have been used widely during the pandemic for job interviews, as well as for court hearings and in other contexts where the information being transferred is likely sensitive. 

The decision may be related to a security breach the town experienced over Zoom in April, when a group of Spanish-speaking teens entered a town board meeting while the board was in executive session. However, “Zoombombing,” as that prank is known, often relies on poor user security — such as an easy-to-guess meeting password, or none at all — rather than poor platform security.

Because Berne was holding a public meeting, all information required to get into the meeting was available on the town’s website. Because the interviews were conducted privately, access information for the meeting was not provided to the public.

Willsey called the security excuse “hogwash,” and said that it was used to intentionally bar him from participating. 

On Jan. 2, Willsey sent an email to his fellow town board members requesting that the appointments be made one at a time this year, rather than all at once, as had been done the year prior. Conklin, a Conservative who was endorsed by the GOP when she was elected this year but has lately encouraged more transparency from her colleagues, responded that she agreed with a one-by-one vote.



On the whole, the outcome of this year’s reorganizational meeting is less dramatic than the impact of last year’s, held on Jan. 1, when the newly christened GOP-backed majority ushered in a slew of changes, many of which were undone because they were illegal or provoked significant public backlash

Illegally, the board replaced dog-control officer Cheryl Baitsholts and planning board member Emily Vincent. Baitsholts was protected by Civil Service Law while Vincent was protected by New York State Town Law. Though Baitsholts did not pursue legal action, Vincent brought the town to court over her removal as a full planning board member and was reinstated in March. 

Also illegally, the board appointed Chance Townsend as code-enforcement officer, even though he lacked state certification. This went undiscussed until November, when, following up on rumors, The Enterprise confirmed with the New York State Department of State that Townsend had not completed the requisite training courses needed to uphold the certification he had obtained in 2018.

The town board has not publicly acknowledged that Townsend was hired illegally, only announcing in December that the town would advertise for a new code-enforcement officer. 

Controversially, the board last year voted to replace (or dismiss by way of not reappointing) a number of town appointments, including youth council volunteer Timothy Doherty, who said that he was not aware of any issues with his tenure on the youth council, to which he was originally appointed in May 2019. 

“No one on the town board ever spoke with me or the town board Youth Council liaison about my participation,” Doherty wrote in a letter to The Enterprise editor last year. “No town board member who was involved attended a single meeting during my time with the council.”

The board also temporarily abandoned The Altamont Enterprise as its paper of record, replacing it with the Times Union, meaning that the town would advertise its meetings and post other legal notices in the latter publication, with Lyons explaining that the decision was based on his observation that Berne residents “say they don’t read The Enterprise.” Approximately one-third of Berne households subscribed to The Enterprise at that time.

The switch was criticized primarily because the rates for legal notices in the Times Union were nearly double that of The Enterprise’s as of Jan. 1, 2020 (75 cents per line as opposed to 39.5 cents). Residents also said that legal notices in the Times Union, which covers the entire Capital District while The Enterprise covers only a portion of Albany County, were harder to keep track of. The decision was later reversed. 

Policy-wise, Lyons announced that he would be introducing a law that would designate Berne a “2nd Amendment sanctuary” where federal and state laws regulating firearms would not be enforced. 

It appeared that he had gotten ahead of himself, though, as he would later announce that the measure would not be a law but a resolution, and, once it was passed as a resolution, there was no meaningful impact since the town doesn’t have its own police force. Nevertheless, the concept of countering gun regulations drew criticism from a large number of residents. 

An unpopular change that the board made at the last reorganizational meeting that’s still reverberating a year later is the restructuring of town board meetings so that, rather than allow public comment at each regularly scheduled monthly meeting, the public would only be allowed to speak at every other meeting. 

Residents lambasted the board for this, and last month, Conklin motioned to allow public comment at every board meeting, but the measure failed, 3-to-2, with Conklin and Willsey voting for it, and Lyons, Palow, and Harris voting against. 

Conklin told The Enterprise that she was a “bit frustrated” by the rejection. 

“During the pandemic,” Conklin said, “it’s even more important for the public to inform its government [of] their needs. The public comment process, I feel, gives people the opportunity to be seen and heard … We don’t know what people want and don’t want for the town unless we hear from them.”

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