In Berne, cronyism, forgery, deception, and inappropriate personal enrichment need to be investigated

To the Editor:

According to Wikipedia, the “appearance” of impropriety is a phrase referring to a situation that, to a layperson without knowledge of specific circumstances, might seem to raise ethics questions. It is common practice in the business and legal communities to avoid even the “appearance” of impropriety.  You know what they say: Where there is smoke, there is fire.

In Berne, there is the “appearance” that we have many categories of potentially unethical, lawless improprieties to consider. Let’s begin with the 2020 budget process through the present.

It appears we could be dealing with cronyism, forgery, deception, and inappropriate personal enrichment. I am not a law-enforcement professional or a lawyer, but from the perspective of a layperson who happens to be a town board member, I have deep concerns that such professionals should investigate the following:

— Again, I am not a lawyer, but it “appears” a Civil Service-protected employee was replaced without notice, without any evaluation of her performance, and without due process required by law. She was replaced by someone who “appears” to be a GOP supporter. This “appears” to be cronyism. It appears very intentional considering this lesson was already learned in Knox;

— It “appears” a voting member of the Berne Planning Board was demoted to “alternate” status without notice or due process required by law. This to make room to appoint a rabidly partisan GOP supporter who works hand in hand with the less-than-scrupulous GOP chairman (my opinion). That man displaced a very experienced and very capable planning-board chairman who is well versed in all the ongoing board business.

It “appears” his competency and performance in his service to the town was not a consideration in this apparently unethical decision. It “appears” this was all illegal to me. The laws that appear to have been violated evolved to, among other things, prevent political board manipulation to control planning-board decisions influenced by rich developers. This “appears” to be cronyism and another attempt to illegally manipulate the planning board membership;

— I am not a lawyer, but it “appears” to me that several statutory obligations were very deliberately violated during the budget process. It “appears” that the GOP chairman/superintendent of highways and the supervisor/budget officer conspired to impede the town board in its attempt to evaluate highway department needs and to review the tentative and the preliminary budgets.

It “appears” that the GOP chairman, in his limited capacity as superintendent of highways, is statutorily obligated to provide highway department budget estimates for consideration in the tentative budget review and he did not. It “appears” that the supervisor is statutorily obligated to reschedule budget meetings at the request of board members within the time frame in the statute and he did not.

It “appears” that resulted in no approved preliminary budget as required by law. It also “appears” that the supervisor reworked his seriously flawed tentative budget without board knowledge, oversight, or a vote to approve a “preliminary budget” and he presented his altered tentative budget as the “preliminary budget.” It “appears” to me that this was deceit or deception. Perhaps a forgery;

— It “appears” that because there was no preliminary budget, there could be no mandated preliminary budget hearing. In fact, it “appears” that all the preliminary budget requirements outlined in section 4 of the Town Law Manual were technically not observed as there was no preliminary budget. It “appears” to me that the process and statutes were disrespected, abused and ignored by the superintendent/GOP chairman and the supervisor/budget officer;

— It “appears” the GOP chairman was personally enriched with monetary compensation for a new “job” that was not discussed in the budget process. It also “appears” there was no job description and there was no competitive advertisement for this new position. It “appears” that this position (apparently created for the GOP chairman) is a new position.

But it “appears” there was no discussion of the money, position, or job description in any 2019 board or budget meetings (I am aware of), and he was appointed before the 2020 board had met to discuss anything at all as a board. So I think it is inappropriate to fund this position with tax dollars, particularly if there were no documented expectations that any work is necessary for pay.

Then it “appears” the GOP chairman deceived the public by claiming (in The Enterprise) that this job had a past history of similar compensation. I have no recollection of discussing or showing this compensation in either of the budgets I worked on. But I suppose I could always be wrong. So I contacted the former longtime solid-waste coordinator who advised me that he was only compensated by the hourly rate he was paid for his maintenance job and transfer-station time and that time was clearly budgeted for every year.

I am very concerned that the 2020 budget was deliberately manipulated to make it difficult for the three Democrats on the board to adequately evaluate the budget and highway costs. Since then, I see expenditures and proposed purchases that were never discussed during the budget process like the GOP chairman’s new job, an SUV for the code-enforcement officer and smart phones for town board Members.

I am not comfortable voting for any town expenditures now. Why bother with the budget process if actual spending in the first weeks of the year was not reflected?

The apparently counterfeit “preliminary budget” was publicly announced on the highly partisan Happenings Facebook page as lowering taxes 9 percent and lowering sewer-district fees. That was not true of the final budget.

There was no preliminary budget as far as I’m concerned, and I now have reservations about the legitimacy of some of the revenue and fund-balance figures used in that budget.

As I understand, Section 2-14A of the Town Law Manual (Association of Towns) addresses the removal of elected officers for committing misconduct (unacceptable/improper behavior), maladministration (blundering/malpractice), malfeasance (deceit/deception) or malversation (lawlessness) in office.  As I interpret the manual, a resident of the town or the district attorney may commence a court proceeding to remove an individual who has engaged in such activities under Public Officers Law Section 36.

Maybe I shouldn’t be the one under continuous investigation?

Joel Willsey

Berne Town Board

Editor’s note: “There was no proposed purchase for a Code Enforcement SUV,” Berne Town Supervisor Sean Lyons responded in an email to The Enterprise. “Phones were purchased for the Town Board members, utilizing shared services with the County and Verizon Wireless to reduce cost and increase security and Town ownership of the phone [numbers], and content. Also new Outlook 360 and town [owned] email address for each councilman on each phone.”

Lyons wrote that the reason for the change in the solid-waste coordinator’s mode of pay was to “limit the time and money spent at the position of Solid Waste Coordinator.

“The position’s wage in 2019 was at $19/hr for 8 hours per week,” Lyons wrote. “With the new position we limit it to 4 hours per week equaling $3,952.00 annually.”

At $152 a week for 52 weeks, the compensation for solid-waste coordinator prior to the change would have totaled $7,904.00.

Regarding the preliminary budget, Lyons wrote, “The board [Democrats] had one month to review, comment and attend two review meetings to approve changes to the tentative budget and did not ask one question or attend any of the two workshops, therefore with no approved changes the tentative budget became the Preliminary on October 30. 

“October 30 was chosen to allow the town enough time to have the notice of the public hearing on the preliminary budget (5 days minimum),” Lyons continued. “All this was done in accordance with the NYS Comptroller’s budget calendar.”

Lyons pointed to §106(4) of New York State Town Law which reads, “Upon the completion of such review, the tentative budget and any modifications thereof as approved by the town board, shall become the preliminary budget. The preliminary budget shall be filed in the office of the town clerk and the town clerk shall reproduce for public distribution as many copies as the town board may direct.”

While the preliminary budget did show a 9-percent decrease in taxes, the budget that was adopted lowers taxes 3.5 percent.

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