‘We were all kind of in shock’: Berne super cuts town board liaisons

Enterprise file photo — H. Rose Schneider

The Berne Town Board reviews a proclamation for emergency responder Gerald Cross at an October town board meeting. From left are town board members Dawn Jordan and Dennis Palow, Supervisor Sean Lyons, and Councilwoman Karen Schimmer.

BERNE — In Berne, the long-time positions of town board liaisons with other boards and departments are no more.

Supervisor Sean Lyons told The Enterprise he made the decision, which was announced at the town’s reorganizational meeting on Jan. 9, because he feels department heads will be better communicating directly to the town board either with oral reports at town meetings or by submitting written reports ahead of time. He said the positions are chosen at his discretion.

“I realized that the lines of communication are more direct,” he said.

Lyons, a Republican, announced his decision just after the three Democratic town board members, in a Jan. 3 letter to the Enterprise editor, called for an apology to Emily Vincent, a farmer who serves on the planning board. Vincent had been falsely accused by Republican Councilman Dennis Palow of putting up a temporary greenhouse illegally. Democratic Councilwoman Dawn Jordan had served as the liaison to the planning board and defended Vincent. No apology was forthcoming.

Lyons told The Enterprise that, in a small town like Berne, the department heads are often available to communicate with him and the board regularly, and described the position of board liaison as an extra level of bureaucracy. He said that he hoped future meetings would be a bit shorter and more to the point.

Town board members in the past were each assigned various departments or boards. They attended board and department meetings, communicated with board members, and reported this information at town board meetings.

The role of the liaison is to act as a “conduit of information” between a town department and a town board, Jordan told The Enterprise. She said that using liaisons is the way it’s always been done, and in the past the supervisor discussed ahead of time the agenda and new positions.

“You are representing the town and town board,” she said.

The role is also a source of information for both the town board on that particular department and for the department on town law and policy, Jordan said. In 2017, when she also served as the liaison for the youth council, Jordan said she often answered questions on purchasing policies.

Lyons said that he believed a board liaison’s role is simply to communicate between the town board and the assigned department or board and, he said, not to influence the department or board.

“There really is no loss of any communication,” he said.

Jordan said that it was blank underneath the agenda item for liaisons at the organizational meeting.

“He really didn’t give a reason … ,” she said, of Lyons’s decision. “I questioned it: ‘So,we’re being unappointed … ?’” she asked.

“We were all kinds of in shock,” she said, of hearing the news.

Lyons said that the move is not political but only to improve communications. There was some shock from board members, he said, but he said this week that he has already had positive communications between department heads.

A decision made in 2003 in Erie County Supreme Court — the lowest level in the state’s three-tiered court system — in which the Clarence Town Board sued its supervisor, Kathleen Hallock, and lost, may be the only partly relevant case law on the matter; the decision references only a 1906 decision. The Erie County court ruled that Hallock, when faced with a motion to oust a liaison, “did not act improperly” in refusing a town board vote.

The decision considers liaisons as “‘committees’ of one,” and under Section 63 of New York State Town law the supervisor is given the power to appoint committees.

The judge states that the Clarence Town Board relied in past years on the decision of the supervisor to designate liaisons. Likewise, the town of Berne, at least in 2018, according to town board minutes, had also previously relied on the supervisor to make these appointments.

However, the Erie County case does not address doing away with the system of board liaisons altogether as happened in Berne.

In 2018, Jordan served as the liaison to the planning and zoning boards as well as  to the Hilltown Seniors; Karen Schimmer served as the Switzkill Farm Board and senior-meals-program liaison. The senior programs are not under the town government but use the town-owned senior center.

Councilman Joel Willsey served as the liaison to the conservation board and the town’s transfer station; Councilman Dennis Palow served as the liaison for the youth council and highway department; and Lyons served as the liaison for the town library’s board of trustees.

Some department heads already regularly presented reports. Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger, who serves in an elected post, presents regular reports, as do Berne Public Library Manager Kathy Stempel and Berne Youth Council Chairwoman Jean Guarino.

Lyons said that one of the reasons he was doing away with the liaison posts was because department heads could present announcements during the public-comment period at town board meetings.

Lyons said that he will be restructuring future town board agendas a week ahead of time to give “ample opportunity” for department reports to be included. Lyons, the town clerk, and the building and zoning department already file written reports to the town board before its meetings, and he surmised other departments could do the same.

The reports would be filed with other documents included on the record in town board meetings. Lyons said he also welcomes the idea of other department heads presenting their own reports at town board meetings.

The supervisor said he would like to streamline board meetings, saying that the reports are often redundant, with department reports often including the same items already mentioned in announcements at the beginning of the meeting or as agenda items.

Jordan told The Enterprise she felt having all department heads present their own reports would be problematic because they would be taking more time out of their schedules on top of the other meetings they attend.

“There’s nothing that says we can’t attend the meetings, and I still plan on attending planning and zoning board meetings,” Jordan said, adding that board members would also not be prevented from speaking about these meetings at town board sessions.

The board members did present their usual liaison reports — on December or early January meetings — at the Jan. 9 town board meeting that followed the reorganizational meeting.

Three new appointments were made on Jan. 9. Ed Hampton, a foreman in the town highway garage, was appointed deputy highway superintendent with a salary of $2,400, a position that has been empty for about four years, said Lyons. Hampton has often offered information or advice relating to the highway garage at meetings.

Debra Flagler was appointed deputy tax collector with a salary of $2,000. The position was newly funded in the 2019 budget with the possibility of Tax Collector Gerald O’Malley retiring soon. O’Malley’s wife had served in the post previously but was not paid, said Lyons.

Town bookkeeper Andrea Borst was appointed as a second deputy town clerk to handle human resources, which will be an unpaid position, the supervisor said.

Lyons also said that town board workshop meetings will now start half-an-hour earlier, at 6:30 p.m..

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