Residents upset over mass Berne firings, some illegal

Thomas Spargo

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel
Thomas Spargo, right, listens as Todd Schwendeman reviews maps during the first planning board meeting since Spargo was appointed as its chairman. He replaced Schwendeman, whom the planning board unanimously recommended remain chairman prior to the Jan. 1 reorganizational meeting.

BERNE — On Jan. 1, the new, GOP-dominant Berne Town Board convened for the first time to set appointments for the year, enraging some residents with sweeping changes it made to positions that had been held by long-standing employees. 

“As far as I see, the way the appointments were done is exactly the way they were done in the past except for this time there was more people involved in the decisions on the appointments,” GOP chairman and Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger told The Enterprise in an email. “In the past, one person would make the decisions [and the] rest of them would go along with it.” 

But some such changes in appointments — like the removal of Cheryl Baitsholts, who had been Berne’s dog control officer for over 12 years; and the demotion of Emily Vincent from full planning board member to alternate member midway through her five-year-term — are illegal.

Vincent’s ouster runs afoul of New York State Town Law, and Baitsholts’s dismissal is in violation of New York State’s Civil Service Law.

“Dog control officers are in the competitive class and therefore covered under Civil Service Law Section 75,” Deputy Personnel Director for the Albany County Department of Civil Service David Walker told The Enterprise.

The law reads that any person covered “shall not be removed or otherwise subjected to any disciplinary penalty provided in this section except for incompetency or misconduct shown after a hearing upon stated charges pursuant to this section.”

No hearing was held before Baitsholts’s dismissal.

The town’s attorney, William Conboy III, did not respond to questions sent by email.

 

Transparency

While not all the changes were illegal, The Enterprise spoke to people ousted from their positions, either paid or unpaid as volunteers, who said they were surprised. They hadn’t been warned in advance of their dismissals and were given no justification.

Todd Schwendeman, for example, was unanimously recommended by the rest of the planning board to continue as chairman but was replaced in that post by Thomas Spargo, a former New York State Supreme Court judge who was disbarred after a bribery conviction in 2009 and has no planning-board experience.

Timothy Doherty, a volunteer, was originally appointed to an unpaid position on the Youth Council in May 2019, but his spot was left vacant at the meeting. He felt maligned by the change and has been seeking explanation from the town board in the weeks since the reorganizational meeting with little success.

Doherty told The Enterprise he had made three inquiries of Supervisor Sean Lyons in an attempt to understand the board’s reason for dismissing him.

Instead, Doherty said, Lyons merely explained that the town board reviews performances of all town appointees each year and makes decisions based on those reviews.

Lyons’s email to Doherty’s inquiry said, in its entirety: “The Town Board oversees the performance of each member of any council, board or committee through each year. Prior to the appointments every year Town Board members review/discuss the positions up for appointment and decision was made not to reappoint you for 2020. Berne Town Board.”

Doherty said that in his brief his time on the youth council, he “drafted a planning timeline for summer camp; contributed and edited documents to assist the director, attended and participated in meetings, developed interview questions and participated in interviews for camp counselors, completed meeting minutes and attended events the youth council was associated with.

“I did research on grant opportunities for supplemental funding, area statistics to determine eligibility for grants, and government feeding programs for summer programs,” he said.

Doherty got involved with the youth council after deciding that the 40 years of public service he had accumulated could be put to use in Berne, where he’s lived for more than 30 years.

Before joining the youth council, Doherty said he worked in a day treatment program, foster care; he was also a houseparent at the Hubbard House, in Albany, with his wife and was an outreach worker for Catholic Charities.

Despite his willingness to volunteer and experience in service, the town board cut Doherty without prior notice.

“I will say that no one on the Town Board ever spoke with me or the Town Board Youth Council Liaison [Karen Schimmer] about my participation,” Doherty said. 

Councilwoman Schimmer, a Democrat, along with Democrat Councilwoman Dawn Jordan, did not seek re-election to the Berne Town Board. Just one Democrat, Joel Willsey, who was not up for re-election last November, remains on the board.

Willsey, who has long been at odds with Bashwinger over his concerns with road safety in the town, said he was unaware of the impending changes and the reasons behind them. 

“They did not inform me of anything,” Willsey told The Enterprise in a text, a few days after the reorganizational meeting. “I asked for an agenda and was told there was none and it was just swearing in and [the] organizational meeting. Then I was confronted with all those pre-prepared motions. All the board members except me were fully informed.”

In a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, Willsey apologized for voting “yes” with the other board members on the long list of appointments, noting that he had not received them ahead of the meeting.

“I had no opportunity to check … ,” Willsey wrote. “I was very deliberately kept out of the loop. The lesson here is to never trust these people. I sincerely apologize to anyone hurt by my vote.”

Enterprise inquiries about the changes also went without clear answers. 

Supervisor Sean Lyons told The Enterprise he will not comment on stories or respond to any questions from the paper after it published a story about his proposed gun sanctuary law. He did not respond to an email with a question related to this story.

Bashwinger said that he was not aware of the impending changes, nor was he an influence on the board’s decisions.

When approached by The Enterprise at the first planning board meeting, Spargo said he was bound by a non-disclosure agreement he signed with the town.

Jody Jansen, who replaced Baitsholts as dog control officer, told The Enterprise that his lawyer advised him not to answer any questions related to the position. 

“There’s nothing they can do about it now, anyway,” Jansen said. “It’s all in the law that [former supervisor Kevin] Crosier wrote.”

Crosier told The Enterprise he had never written a law that prevented Baitsholts from holding her position. 

“They’re just making stuff up as they go along,” Crosier said.

Baitsholts said that Bashwinger had told her Berne has an old policy to hire town residents first, which made Baitsholts question why she had been reappointed 12 times.

 

Politics?

Part of the motivation for the new appointments looks to be political. Baitsholts is enrolled as a Democrat while Jansen is enrolled as a Republican. Schwendeman, too, is enrolled as a Democrat while Spargo, enrolled as a Conservative, ran for Berne town justice on the Republican line in 1999 and won. Spargo formerly served as counsel to the State Republican Committee. Doherty is enrolled as a Democrat.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost 2 to 1 in Berne. The current board is the first in decades not dominated by Democrats. 

The two new council members — Bonnie Conklin, a Conservative, and Mathew Harris, an Independence Party member — both received most of their votes in November on the GOP line. They joined two Republicans already on the board: Supervisor Lyons and Councilman Dennis Palow.

 

Reactions

The town’s opacity has driven some residents to speak out. At the first regular town board meeting with the new board, on Jan. 8, Berne resident Barbara Kennedy, along with a handful of others, complained about the new appointments, the loss of the old appointees, and the lack of transparency in the process. 

Spargo drew the most serious criticisms, but had a handful of defenders in the crowd.

“Why don’t we just hire a rapist to run our youth program?” Kennedy asked hyperbolically during the meeting’s public-comment period, before Lyons made her sit down. 

Chance Townsend, who was appointed Jan. 1 as the town’s building inspector — a post he resigned from earlier amid controversy — pleaded that residents give Spargo another opportunity.

“In the nature of my name [Chance],” Townsend said, “I’d like to give Spargo a second chance.”

Fred Philhart Jr., who said he’s a “potential resident” of Berne, offered Spargo’s years living in Berne as a means of defense.

“He’s pretty much a lifelong Berne resident … so I’m sure he knows the town,” he said.

Nevertheless, Leo Bartell, a resident, said the town board took on a liability with Spargo’s appointment.

Baitsholts, meanwhile, elicited sympathy from residents, but only a weak commendation from the town board.

The Enterprise has received several letters to the editor written in support of Baitsholts this week, with many of the authors sharing stories of instances where Baitsholts helped pair them with a stray or lost dog. 

“In my years in this area, it has been a comfort to know that someone as knowledgeable and concerned as Cheryl Baitsholts has been the steward of our lost and found animals,” wrote Lucy Cirincione, of Rensselaerville.

“Many years ago, she enlisted me to help with a little stray pitbull-beagle mix,” wrote Helene Goldberger. “My husband and I wound up adopting the little brindle dog we named Honeydew and she was the start of something big …” 

When asked by a resident during the Jan. 8 meeting about the decision to change dog-control officers, Lyons said, “I’m not commenting on that.” 

Later in the meeting, Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin, who was elected in November alongside Mathew Harris, returned to the issue.

“I think [Baitsholts] did a great job,” she said, but added, “Sometimes it’s just time to move on,”  

Conklin said that it’s preferable to have a town employee who resides in the town of Berne, as Jansen does. Baitsholts lives in Rensselaerville.

 

Baitsholts

Baitsholts was appointed as Berne’s dog control officer 12-and-a-half years ago and has been Rensselaerville’s dog control officer for nearly 24 years. 

“[Baitsholts] had all the experience and the training,” said Crosier, who was supervisor when she was appointed in 2006. “The other part was she had an approved kennel.” 

Rather than send animals to Mohawk Hudson Humane Society — where the price to send animals varies by the organization’s contract with each town — Baitsholts holds stray animals in a facility in Rensselaerville, charging $15 per day.

“When I took the job with the town of Berne,” Baitsholts told The Enterprise, “I asked permission to use the Rensselaerville shelter.”

Baitsholts also replaced equipment herself and stayed up to date on the necessary shots, for rabies, and training. 

“I have all my own equipment. I have my own kennel,” she said. “I stopped asking for equipment in my budget.”

Those cost savers were not only a boon for the town, she said, but for residents who weren’t prepared to absorb the cost of a lost pet.

Baitsholts recalled an incident where a man lost his pet and couldn’t afford to retrieve it back from the Mohawk-Hudson Humane Society until then-Supervisor Crosier negotiated a lower price for its return. 

Marguerite Pearson, Director of Marketing and Communication for Mohawk-Hudson, said the facility holds dogs for up to nine days, and that animals who are not retrieved by the end of the holding period are placed into their adoption program.

The shelter typically administers euthanasia when it is “medically warranted or behaviorally warranted,” Pearson said. 

Westerlo’s dog control officer, Justin Case, said that the Mohawk-Hudson’s price to hold dogs for one week was $375 last year. They recently changed their pricing system, though, instead charging a daily rate that Case could not recall at the time.

“For a dog who scooted out the door because the baby opened it, that’s tragic for a family that doesn’t have a lot of money,” said Baitsholts.

It’s unclear where Jansen houses strays — whether he has an approved kennel or whether the town will have to pay for transport to and a contract with the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society.

To return lost pets, Baitsholts relied on her community connections, bolstered by a Facebook page dedicated to posting photos of lost animals and notifying the public that an owner is seeking their return.

She said the page has around 790 followers.

While returning animals to their owners and housing strays is only one part of the job — Baitsholts explained that the real work is knowing locals laws and state guidelines and mediating disputes, often between neighbors — it appears to be the aspect that’s most meaningful to the community, and the reason behind the swell of support she’s received since her dismissal.

She recalled one rescue that got a lot of media attention involving a German shepherd named Khaos who a year-and-a-half ago was stranded off a cliff at Thacher Park for six days.

“Khaos is one of our Berne residents. His owner called within 5 minutes of his going missing while in the park,” Baitsholts recalled for The Enterprise this week.

“I went to the park immediately and searched, no dog. I shared his face all over Facebook several times a day including all the feel-good lost-pet sites. 

“There were absolutely no sightings at all. His owner thought he’d been stolen. I kept at it because dogs don’t just disappear into thin air. 

“My gut told me he had gone over the edge; I had no way to prove it. It just didn’t make sense. I searched the park daily. I continued to share my posts, begging for sightings.

“After a week, a lovely woman who lived at the bottom of the escarpment saw my post, called me at 10:30 p.m. to tell me her husband thought he could hear a dog on the escarpment. I couldn’t believe it after all this time.”

Khaos’s devoted owner, who had been searching for six days from 5 a.m. till midnight, was called and Baitsholts and the dog’s owner met at the woman’s house the next morning since searching in the dark would have been futile.

“I arrived first, her dogs barked at me as I got out of my car, then Khaos started barking from the escarpment,” Baitsholts recalled. “It was one of the happiest moments in my career but we still had work to do.  

“My first phone call was to the Albany County Sheriff's dispatch to let them know about the situation and ask for help. Thank goodness my favorite dispatcher answered the call; she knew I wasn’t crazy and got the ball rolling.”

The sheriff’s office responded with its rescue team at the Thacher Park Overlook. Khaos was located about 30 feet below the cliff’s edge, and 40 to 50 feet above ground; to return back would be 300 yards down a 60-percent incline. So the dog and the search-and-rescue team ascended the cliff face since it was less dangerous than descending the slope on foot, according to the commander who led the rescue efforts.

Baitsholts said that those efforts are not a requirement of the job.

“I do it because I get it,” she explained. “[Dogs] are family.”

 

Other business

In other business at its Jan. 8 meeting, the Berne Town Board:

— Held a moment of silence for American soldiers in Iran, where missiles struck an evacuated U.S. military base. Behind Supervisor Lyons at different points throughout the meeting was a projection of the American flag;

— Heard from resident Mike Vincent who, among other things, addressed the demolition of the library garage and asked if someone wouldn’t be willing to buy the structure from the town and take it away;

— Heard from Berne resident Helen Lounsbury, who asked if The Enterprise’s reporting of the town’s reorganizational meeting, where the town chose to change its paper of record from The Enterprise to the Times Union despite a higher cost to post legal notices and lower visibility, was inaccurate and if Lyons had any corrections. Lyons responded that he did not;

— Heard from former Councilwoman Dawn Jordan who said the town owes residents an explanation for the decisions it made on Jan. 1. “I think the people sitting here, who will read The Altamont Enterprise article, which a lot of people will be reading, deserve an explanation for replacing the people you’re replacing.”;

— Heard from Michaela Fisher, a member of the conservation board until the Jan 1. reorganizational meeting, who asked for clarification about the supposed consolidation of the Switzkill Farm board, conservation board, and youth council. Lyons declined to comment at that time but said later in the meeting that reporting on the boards’ consolidation was inaccurate and that appointments to those boards are being held while the town reviews the boards’ codes. “We don’t want to drag this out by any means,” he said;

— Heard from Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger said he found someone interested in buying the town’s returned bottles at a higher price of about $400 for 6,000 returned bottles. He also said the highway department is in need of a new truck. “We don’t have extra trucks,” he said;

— Heard from Councilman Mathew Harris that the town is awaiting a report from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority on LED lights.

—  Passed a motion made by Councilman Dennis Palow made a motion that the highway evaluation proposed by Councilman Willsey, who was absent, be cancelled. The motion carried. “I don’t want to bring someone in here and pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars …” Palow said;

— Discussed the possibility of creating a new-resident welcome packet, proposed by Councilman Palow, who said welcome packets were a useful resource when he moved around while in the military.

— Heard from planning board member Mike Vincent, who asked the board about progress on senior housing. Conklin apologized for comments she made publicly during the Jan. 1 reorganizational meeting about the Berne-Knox-Westerlo superintendent, Timothy Mundell, wanting to work with the town on shared water and senior housing. At the BKW board of education meeting earlier this month, former board member Helen Lounsbury asked Mundell about Conklin’s comments. Mundell claimed they were inaccurately reported by The Enterprise, which quoted Conklin. 

More Hilltowns News

  • The town of Berne is being audited by the New York State Comptroller after Councilman Joel Willsey, the board’s lone Democrat, complained about the formulation of the town’s 2020 budget.

  • Todd Schwendeman

    Todd Schwendeman announced his resignation from the Berne Planning Board, offering the town board a way to appoint convicted felon Tom Spargo back to the board after his short, illegal tenure. 

  • Vandalism was discovered in Westerlo’s town park this week, with graffiti artwork and crude phrases scrawled around the pavilion. 

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