If the law is trampled, justice will languish

A society has laws to embody its values.

New York State Town Law set up planning boards so that appointed members would not be changed wholesale with a town’s changing political winds. The law sets long terms — five years for a five-member board and seven years for a seven-member board. This ensures that members gain experience with the complexities of planning and allows long-term members to inform new ones.

Planning boards are important because they guide a town in creating laws and make irreversible decisions on how a town develops.

According to 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.”

The Berne Town Board, at its New Year’s Day reorganizational meeting, broke that law. Planning board member Emily Vincent, who works as both a sheep farmer and a registered nurse, was appointed to her post in January 2017.

“They fired me without even contacting me,” Vincent told us on New Year’s Day.

The town board held no public hearing and gave no cause, as required by the law.

We checked with the Department of State to see if there were any way around this part of State Town Law and were told, under certain circumstances, a town board may adopt a local law to supplement or change the procedures we quoted. But the Berne board has passed no such local law.

We understand that the new Berne Town Board is, for the first time in recent history, not dominated by Democrats and is eager to make changes. But those changes cannot violate the law.

Vincent had been appointed in January 2017. Democrat Kevin Crosier was supervisor then. This week, he recalled Vincent’s appointment. It is hard, Crosier said, to get all the members of a town board to agree on a planning-board appointment; rarely are the votes unanimous.

“When we interviewed Emily, as soon as she left the room, they said, ‘This is the one.’” Crosier recalled. “The vote was unanimous.”

Vincent herself is a member of the Green Party; she said earlier that she felt the planning board was a place where she could affect change in a non-political manner.

“When I was serving,” Vincent told us this week, “we had a group of people from different political backgrounds. That made for good conversation. We all brought something to the table.”

During her tenure, she was the only farmer on the planning board in a town with deep agricultural roots. Recently, she was the only female on the board.

The town board has a legal right to appoint a new planning-board member when someone’s term is up and also has the right to appoint a chairman. Todd Schwendeman had served as chairman and the planning board members had unanimously recommended to the town board that he continue in that role.

Schwendeman said he was surprised the town board, instead, appointed Thomas Spargo as chairman on New Year’s Day; the appointment had not been discussed with planning board members.

Spargo is an unusual choice not just because he had never served on the planning board but because he is a convicted felon. 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. Upon conviction, Spargo had been stripped of his license to practice law.

Berne’s Republican supervisor, Sean 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.”

Last Thursday evening, after Spargo’s first Berne Planning Board meeting, he told The Enterprise he still couldn’t talk because he signed a confidentiality agreement as part of the job.

The Berne Town Board had, at its New Year’s Day meeting, passed several resolutions forbidding town board members to share information with the press or public. Some of those directives run afoul of the state’s Open Meetings Law.

“An informed citizenry is one that cannot be controlled,” said Emily Vincent this week.

She’s right. A democracy is meant to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. If the citizens are not informed, they are not in power.

Vincent gave several examples of how members of the planning board had worked together, ensuring improvements for Berne.

She described Dollar General’s first proposal for a store in Berne as “ugly.”

“We wanted to promote agri-tourism, reflective of our roots; that was not embodied in a cement block.” She said of Dollar General, “They really took that to heart. The Dollar General is a beautiful property now.” Vincent said other businesses have reported increases in their business because of it.

Vincent also noted, with a large number of elderly residents in Berne, the planning board wanted more parking spaces for the handicapped, and Dollar General obliged.

“We’ve been eager to assist people who want to build,” said Vincent but the goal has been to make it work for the community. When Midtel was building a substation, she said, “We had them plant trees so it’s kind of hidden.”

“It’s important,” she said, “to protect the integrity of the town, to get in new families with kids — that helps the schools.”

Vincent also cares about protecting the natural landscape, which she sees as promoting business. She runs a business, as a farmer, with about 250 sheep, and this past year hosted, with Cornell Cooperative Extension, a Family Farm Day.

Well over 1,000 people attended. “I called Realtors to bring flyers, and other farmers to display their wares,” said Vincent.

Combining her expertise in health — she works as an intensive-care-unit nurse — and as a farmer, Vincent testified before the State Assembly Agriculture Committee on the dangers of poisonous parsnip, an invasive species spreading through rural areas of New York.

Vincent is also proud of Berne’s solar laws — most recently industrial-scale solar — on which the planning board advised the town board. Berne is now poised to consider its first application for an industrial-scale solar farm with a law that also protects the landscape.

One of the things Vincent contributed to that law was not allowing chemical sprays, frequently used on solar farms, because people in Berne depend on clear aquifers for their well water, she said.

Vincent believes it is useful to have both men and women on the planning board because women often bring a different perspective.

She gave as an example her questioning of Jeff Thomas, a developer who more than a decade ago proposed building senior housing in Berne but required both public sewer and water. The town now has a sewer system in the hamlet, extending to Thomas’s intended site.

Vincent stressed that she wants senior housing for Berne but also feels protective of the town’s seniors — “like they were my own parents” — and doesn’t want to see them sell their houses, giving up their life savings to move into a place where they would have no control if the rent were raised.

“When I asked him, what would keep him from raising the rents, he said, ‘I’m a businessman,’” Vincent recalled.

Vincent went on, “It was an honest question. He wants us to spend a million dollars on infrastructure — a water system — so he can make money from our seniors. We need to make sure they are protected. We need to see what we can enact to protect our most fragile people.”

From this, we can see that the supervisor’s plan of a “new direction of the board, getting more business in town” is not in opposition to what the former planning board — before Vincent’s demotion to alternate and Spargo’s appointment — was already doing.

The board was working with applicants to improve the town while also looking out for its residents.

Vincent had previously been mistreated by town officials who tried to remove her from the planning board.

In the summer of 2018, Vincent put up a temporary greenhouse that, according to the state building code, does not need a permit. The former building inspector, Chance Townsend, who was reappointed on New Year’s Day to the post from which he had resigned, had erroneously declared it illegal.

At the town board’s November meeting that year, Republican Councilman Dennis Palow and the highway superintendent, Randy Bashwinger, who is also the GOP chairman, raised objections to Vincent serving on the Berne Planning Board based on her building the temporary greenhouse without a permit and on other false allegations.

This week, Vincent said, for the sake of other farmers, she had felt it was important to stand up for what the law specified. “If he walked on me, he’d walk on everyone,” she said. “Laws are put in place to protect everyone.”

And so they are. The new Berne Town Board is not above the law.

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