Another town board that either doesn’t know the law, or doesn’t care

For the third time, we are writing an editorial on the importance of Civil Service Law. For the third time, in three different Helderberg Hilltowns, the law has been violated.

The first time was after the reorganizational meeting in Knox on New Year’s Day 2019 when, by a 3-to-2 vote, three transfer-station workers were replaced. Two of them, Joseph Adriance and Richard Dexter, had held their jobs for more than five years and so were protected by Civil Service Law. Adriance and Dexter challenged the decision; the ruling was in their favor and they got their jobs back on April 30, but are still fighting for lost pay.

The second time was this past fall when Westerlo’s assessor for 19 years, Peter Hotaling, was replaced by the town board. “In the Town of  Westerlo, the position of Assessor I is a non-competitive title,” Albany County Civil Service Deputy Personnel Officer David Walker told us then. “If the person has been in the position for five or more consecutive years they would have Civil Service Section 75 rights. This means they cannot be removed from the position except for incompetency or misconduct shown after a hearing upon stated charges pursuant to Section 75 of Civil Service Law.”

No hearing was conducted for Hotaling. He, too, filed paperwork for a ruling from Albany County Civil Service, which has not yet been forthcoming. Hotaling meanwhile has accepted a job as Renselaerville’s assessor.

The third time is not a charm. On New Year’s Day 2020, the Berne Town Board — unimpeded by the board’s lone remaining Democrat — made swift and sweeping changes. One of them was replacing Cheryl Baitsholts, who had served as Berne’s dog control officer for 12-and-a-half years. Baitsholts is enrolled as a Democrat. Her replacement, Jody Jansen, is enrolled as a Republican.

Like many other town workers, and even volunteers, who were replaced on New Year’s Day, Baitsholts received no advanced warning. Like the others, she got a brief, dismissive email.

And, like the others who were summarily dismissed, Baitsholts had had no evaluations of her work or any inkling that anything was awry.

As we’ve written on this page before, it’s only fair to workers for the town to set clear standards and to conduct regular evaluations so that, if there are shortcomings in an employee’s work, they can be addressed. This is good for the workers and good for the town.

The outpouring of support for Baitsholts has been remarkable. Our opinion pages last week were filled with letters telling of Baitsholts’s work that went well beyond what was required of the job, which has an annual salary of $6,509. The letter-writers also explained how Baitsholts uses her social-media network to quickly and efficiently get out the word on lost pets.

Finally, Baitsholts herself wrote of the money she saved the town by having an approved kennel, shared with Rensselaerville where she lives and also serves as dog control officer, and her own equipment — costs the town will have to pay for with a new dog-control officer.

But what trumps even common courtesy and good management is violation of the law. As we wrote in this space two weeks ago, the Berne Town Board’s demotion of Emily Vincent from full planning board member to alternate member midway through her five-year-term runs afoul of New York State Town Law.

The dismissal of Baitsholts violates New York State’s Civil Service Law. “Dog control officers are in the competitive class and therefore covered under Civil Service Law Section 75,” Walker told The Enterprise last week.

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.”

While the law itself does not define those two terms, case law and arbitration decisions have led to these generally accepted definitions:

— Misconduct: An act of omission or intentional wrongdoing; deliberate violation of law, rule, or regulation; improper behavior; or refusal to obey or comply; and

— Incompetence: The inability to perform resulting from a lack of aptitude, a deficiency in knowledge, or a disregard for directions, procedures, or methods.

No hearing was held before Baitsholts’s dismissal. No incompetency or misconduct were shown. As we wrote in this space two weeks ago, the new Berne Town Board is not above the law.

In the absence of the town attorney answering our questions, we urge town board members themselves to read the law, then to do the right thing and reinstate Baitsholts. The new board members took an oath of office on New Year’s Day to uphold the law.

Failing that, we urge Baitsholts to do as the Knox workers before her did, file for a ruling that will force the town board to restore her job.

As we’ve written here before, Civil Service protection was a hard-fought battle, both nationally and in New York State. President James A. Garfield spent most of his short tenure as president appointing political supporters to fill the thousands of government jobs he’d emptied when elected. After he was assassinated in 1881 by a disappointed job seeker, the country was shocked into action. Civil Service reform began in earnest.

In New York State, city political machines had great power — New York City had William Tweed, and Albany had Dan O’Connell. Boss Tweed met his downfall after The New York Times published stories documenting the corruption in the construction of the New York Courthouse, started in 1862 and not completed a decade later. Tweed was convicted in 1871 and died in prison in 1878.

But it wasn’t until the New Deal legislation, coming out of the Great Depression, weakened the hold of the old-time district leaders on the poor — poor people could finally get government help as a right instead of a favor — and most municipal jobs became Civil Service jobs, that the power of the city machines were cut.

The movement for reform grew as social services increased; government began providing what the old political machines had offered. The Civil Service system in New York has grown, too, over the years. The state’s Department of Civil Service now reports that nearly 400,000 local-government employees and over 160,000 state employees are part of the system.

Cheryl Baitsholts was part of that system and deserves the protection she has earned as a civil servant.

Just because the Berne Town Board no longer has a Democratic majority doesn’t mean those who ran on the Republican ticket can throw out the law and return to the days of “to the victor belong the spoils.” That phrase was coined by New York Senator William Marcy, after Andrew Jackson’s victory in the election of 1828.

But, as a society, we’ve progressed since then. We’ve learned that appointments shouldn’t be upended by political whim, that workers have value because of their expertise, not just their political party. Our society’s progress is embodied in our laws. We repeat: The new Berne Town Board is not above the law.

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