Illegally demoted Berne employee raises over $5K in one day for legal, medical fees

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Emily Vincent, a Berne farmer, testifies in 2018 before the State Assembly’s agriculture committee on the harm wild parsnip has done to her sheep and her husband.

BERNE — On a GoFundMe page for Emily Vincent, a member of the Berne planning board who was illegally demoted as a full member to an alternate midway through her five-year term, impassioned supporters have contributed more than $5,000 in approximately 24 hours. Vincent said she intends to put this money toward an upcoming brain surgery and legal action against the town.

“People in power think they can do whatever they want and get away with it,” Vincent told The Enterprise. “Someone needs to take a stand.”

The average donation is approximately $122 from 44 beneficients — some as far away as Denmark and Spain, Vincent said.

At its Jan. 1 reorganizational meeting, the newly Republican Berne Town Board voted to demote Vincent to an alternate position to make room for Thomas Spargo, who had not been a member of the planning board, as the board’s chairman. Spargo is a former New York State Supreme Court justice and prominent state Republican figure who was convicted of extortion and bribery committed in his capacity as judge and sentenced to more than two years in prison in 2009.

At the time of her demotion, Vincent was three years into a five-year term. New York State Town Law says that planning board members are entitled to finish out their terms unless the town board proves “non-compliance with minimum requirements related to meeting attendance and training” or “for cause” following a public hearing. 

The board has not given a reason for Vincent’s dismissal, but Supervisor Sean Lyons was critical about what he incorrectly believes to be frequent use of the word “fired” in Enterprise articles about Vincent’s demotion.

“I am glad to see that you did not use the word fired as has been inaccurately stated many times in your paper recently,” Lyons said when The Enterprise asked about salaries for alternate members.

The Enterprise has not reported Vincent’s demotion as a “firing,” although Vincent herself has used the word. 

Lyons went on to explain that he believes that, as an alternate, Vincent will be paid the same as a full member. Vincent’s GoFundMe page, which is organized by an anonymous group called “Team Emily,” says that Vincent’s “dismissal … took away the supplemental income the job provided, income that supported her farm.” 

Planning board alternates do the same work as full members, so that they are informed for periods when a full board member is absent, but do not have a vote if all full members are present.

The 2020 budget reserves $1,750 for the planning board’s alternate member, equal to the amounts reserved for each of the full members.

“I believe the previous board made the change to pay the alternate member the same as regular members as the training and attendance requirements are the same,” Lyons said. 

“I did not receive any papers or correspondence from the town,” Vincent said when asked if she knew that she would receive the same amount of money as a full board member. “Ever.”

The reorganizational meeting agenda does not include the alternate planning board member in the resolutions that were passed to authorize the wages and salaries for town employees for 2020.

News of Vincent's removal came as she’s been preparing for brain surgery on Jan. 22 to remove a tumor that was discovered over the summer. Doctors have told her there’s no guarantee of success, she said.

“I’m really nervous,” Vincent said on Jan. 20 of the surgery. “I was an ICU nurse … so I’ve seen the outcomes.” 

According to the GoFundMe page, risks of the brain surgery include paralysis and impaired movement.

“We’re just hoping for the best,” Vincent said. “I just got fired from the town so I’m trying to deal with both things at once.”

While she’s recovering from her surgery, Vincent plans to file an Article 78 proceeding in State Supreme Court, the lowest rung in the state’s three-tiered system, against the town. Article 78 proceedings allow citizens to challenge government decisions.

“It doesn’t really matter who’s in charge.” Vincent said. “We still need accountability.”

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