Democracy is adrift when isolated from the citizens it serves

Democracy, as we all know, is a government powered by the people. The word itself comes from the Greek words for people — demos — and for power — kratos.

Abraham Lincoln put it eloquently when he spoke at Gettysburg in 1863, hoping that those who died on the battlefield had not died in vain. Rather, he opined, that the nation would “have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

These days, each one of us, as citizens, have to be on our guard to see that the United States’ great experiment in democracy succeeds. It seems it would be easy in a small town for those representing the people to be attuned to their needs.

The town of Berne in the Helderberg Hilltowns, according to the 2020 census, has a population of just 2,689 or about a thousand households — nearly flat for decades. It’s small enough that those campaigning for elections can go door-to-door and stop at each of those households.

Why then are we witnessing such a gap between those elected to the town board and the citizens they represent? Some of the most basic duties of government are being neglected.

At the start of this new year, we reported how the Berne Town Board is still failing to provide adequate oversight of town spending and bookkeeping despite specific recommendations made by the state comptroller’s office in 2021 on how to do so.

In the decades that we’ve covered municipal audits — and many of our towns and villages have received recommendations — we’ve never covered a municipality that simply ignored most of the audit.

Berne’s follow-up audit report showed the town board had done just that. Of 11 recommendations, only one was fully implemented. Eight recommendations were made to the town board, and three were made to the supervisor, each related to the review of financial decisions. 

Supervisor Dennis Palow told the auditors his administration “should not be responsible for the actions of the previous administration,” of which he was a part, the report notes. Palow was the deputy supervisor under Sean Lyons at the time the initial audit was undertaken.

Using an example of just one of the audit’s recommendations, the follow-up report says that the town board members did not request or receive cash balance reports or reports of all money received and disbursed. “The Board was unaware these reports should be provided and reviewed because they did not read the audit report or recommendations,” the report says.

Handling a town’s finances is one of the primary responsibilities of an elected board. How can those who are elected to and paid for that job not even read the comptroller’s recommendations?

This is not political. Anyone elected to a town board from any party or no party should look after finances responsibly.

Some Berne residents have already been highly critical of the town board’s ability to properly manage public money, and Enterprise reporting from October revealed that the town failed to pay several of its National Grid bills on time when these bills were obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request. Palow has denied that the town didn’t pay its bills, but has not provided any proof. 

As journalists, we of course seek out Palow’s views to hear his reasons for not meeting basic responsibilities like these but he refuses to answer our questions.

He wrote in an email to our Hilltown reporter, Noah Zweifel, “Please do not contact anymore or about any story for the Town of Berne. As I stated before all your stories you write about the current board and the Town are false and shows the residents you are lying.”

We keep asking questions, though, of Palow and the other elected town board members because we believe Berne residents deserve answers. 

One Berne resident became so frustrated by this lack of response he wrote in a January letter to the Enterprise editor, “Lately we have seen quotes, people stating all stories published about the town of Berne and its board members are lies. Not some. Not a few. But all.

“The paper can only print articles from information it is given and has verified or from its own investigations. If people give no opposing input, they have no reason to voice opposition to what has been published.”

He concluded, “Accusations without proof are like an unsigned letter of complaint — it has no merit.”

The latest lack of comment from elected town board members has been about Switzkill Farm. We’ve written about that spectacular piece of land since at least the 1960s when Robert Milano, of New York City, had it as a pheasant farm. He donated the bulk of the property to The New School for Social Research in New York City.

In 2004, the not-for-profit Tenzin Gyatso Institute bought 385 acres there but its plans for a North American retreat center associated with Rigpa, an international Tibetan Buddhist organization with centers across the globe, didn’t pan out. Rigpa centers base their programs on “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche, who visited the Berne retreat center for its inauguration in 2010.

Visitors came to stay in the center’s living quarters, which offered instruction on meditation and the philosophies of Buddhism. It also was aimed at training caregivers to help dying people.

Initially, Rigpa planned to construct and renovate buildings in a two-phase project in Berne, ending in 2020. The plan included a 40-tent camping area, a dining hall, and a residence hall, along with upgrades to utilities, wastewater treatment, and additional structures, like a temple. The parking lot was designed for 110 vehicles.

The property was first listed for $750,000 and offered to the town. When the Tenzin Gyatso Institute failed to secure a sale to another Buddhist organization, it returned to negotiations with Berne, with its final sale price at $475,000, half of which will came from the Open Space Institute and another $125,000 from the Albany County Capital Resource Corporation, a public authority.

The land is near the state-owned Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area and adjacent to Cole Hill State Forest, an 876-acre area that includes four miles of a trail known as the Long Path that starts in New Jersey at the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan and extends north to Altamont.

Several members of the then-Democratic Berne Town Board expressed concern that the board had to move so quickly on the purchase in order to take advantage of the offered funding. But, in the end, the vote on Sept. 10, 2014 to purchase the property — which included a conservation easement — was unanimous.

While a committee of enthusiastic volunteers was formed to provide local activities at the venue as well as trying to make it a destination for tourists or events like weddings, Switzkill Farm quickly became a campaign issue for Republicans.

We can understand and even endorse some of the objections raised by the purchase: It was done hastily, the town already has a lot of parkland, and it is costly to keep up the buildings.

Albany County offered $150,000 for the property but then withdrew the offer because of the investment that was needed. Zweifel checked up on negotiations in December after a barn on the property collapsed and heard from the county spokeswoman that negotiations had been “nipped in the bud” by the town.

The GOP town board, meanwhile, has proposed auctioning off Switzkill Farm as well as logging it; both are complicated because the property has a conservation easement. Selling the land, even with an easement, is likely to be difficult because of state regulations protecting municipal parkland.

Zweifel of course tried to find out the town’s view but Palow and all of the other town board members have declined to answer questions about the negotiations.

Zweifel filed Freedom of Information Law requests with both the town and the county and received emails back from Albany County, which indicated the $150,000 offer. This is more than the town paid for the property in the first place and it would have ensured that it was maintained and still open for public use, but the buildings were too far gone.

Further, Zweifel was told by the county spokeswoman, Mary Rozak, that the town of Berne rejected an offer from Albany County to help preserve the buildings at Switzkill Farm while negotiations for a purchase are on pause. The town, she said, “didn’t want any part of that.”

This makes no sense. Buildings that aren’t maintained — Berne slashed the budget for Switzkill Farm — become liabilities rather than assets. And, since the GOP board had dismantled the committee of enthusiastic volunteers, there was no impetus to bring in funds.

Rozak’s characterization of the talks is in direct contrast to what Palow had told residents at a town board meeting in January, where he claimed that the county withdrew the offer because it had no money and wanted to revisit discussions in three years. Palow suggested that the county was waiting for Democrats to come back into power in Berne to resume the negotiations. He made no mention at the January board meeting of the county’s offer to help maintain the property. 

How is this serving the residents of Berne?

The current issue that has generated a slew of letters to the editor, this week and last, is the Berne Town Board’s proposal for a new local law that would allow all-terrain vehicles on public roads in town. 

Joe Martin, Berne’s planning board chairman, who proposed the bill, said at the January board meeting that having outsiders come into town and frequent Berne businesses would increase its sales-tax haul.

This simply is not true. Sales tax in the town is not earned through local sales but is distributed by Albany County — the biggest generator is Crossgates Mall in Guilderland — to municipalities across the county based on population, and funds about half of Berne’s budget each year, which is typical for the Hilltowns. 

Zweifel has a story this week explaining that the proposed law goes directly against guidance provided by a number of organizations, from consumer groups and state agencies to ATV safety groups and vehicle manufacturers.

In New York State, public roads are closed by default to ATVs and similar vehicles except when a rider needs to cross from one section of an off-road trail to another. ATVs are not allowed on the state lands in Berne because of the harm they cause the environment.

Letter writes have also raised safety issues and concerns about law-enforcement already being spread thin, cited noise pollution, called it a threat to peaceful rural living, raised issues about problems ATVs on the roads would cause for farm animals and crops, lack of environmental review, listed costs the town would have to bear in cases of injury or death, and more.

We run an open forum on our opinion pages and have received just one letter — a thoughtful letter from an East Berne writer, Maureen Abbott, who says it is fun to ride and would be good for today’s youth to be outdoors as she was — arguing in favor of the proposed law.

We believe that, while people are certainly entitled to ride their ATVs on private property where they have permission, it flies against reason to pass a law allowing them on public roads when those roads are not connecting trail systems and since state agencies meant to protect citizens oppose it as do the associations of ATV riders themselves.

Martin said that ATV riders face stigma and he hoped wider, more visible use of ATVs would break that stigma.

Martin told the Berne Town Board in November, “We have work to do to break that stigma, so we need the board’s support.”

This law would not open the door of acceptance for ATV riders; it would do just the opposite.

Our society is filled with people who are stigmatized through no doing of their own — not because of a choice they’ve made for a recreational activity but because, for instance, they were born with a disability or born into poverty or are suffering from a mental illness.

We’re all for a government of the people trying to reduce stigmas like those.

But, in this case, we urge the Berne Town Board to listen to the people it was elected to serve.

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