Berne Planning Board publicly advocates for Vincent’s reinstatement as Vincent challenges town and Spargo in court

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 — At its monthly meeting on Feb. 6, the Berne Planning Board submitted a letter to its chairman, the freshly appointed Thomas Spargo, advocating for the reinstatement of Emily Vincent as a full member of the board after her illegal demotion earlier this year.

Vincent has filed an Article 78 against the town and Spargo, challenging its decision. Article 78 is the article of New York’s Civil Practice Law and Rules that allows individuals to challenge decisions made by administrative agencies, public bodies, or officers.

The planning board letter is the first time members of the town government, save for Joel Willsey as the town board’s lone Democrat, have stood up to recent administrative changes made by the new Republican majority in the town, including another illegal dismissal, that of long-time animal-control officer Cheryl Baitsholts, who had Civil Service protection.

The letter — which was also submitted on Feb. 5 as a letter to the Enterprise editor and signed by all members of the planning board except for Spargo — cites New York State Town Law §271(9) as the law violated by the town board when it voted to demote Vincent from a full member of the planning board to an alternate. It goes on to characterize the decision as “illegal, arbitrary, and capricious.”

The law states planning board members can be removed by the town, but only with cause. Vincent never received a public hearing, and the town board did not cite any reason for her demotion to alternate.

After the Feb. 6 planning board meeting, the town’s GOP chairman and highway superintendent, Randy Bashwinger, approached The Enterprise and stated that Vincent had missed six planning board meetings in 2019. The minutes of the 12 monthly planning board meetings held in 2019 show that Vincent was absent for five of those. 

For comparison, planning board members Mike Vincent — who is not related to Emily Vincent— and Mark Sengenberger had one absence each. Mark Hohengasser, an alternate, also had five absences. Alternates are expected to attend planning board meetings as regularly as full members so that the alternate can make informed votes when a member is absent.

The Berne Planning Board does not have an attendance requirement according to the laws posted on ecode360.com, a website that hosts municipal documents. 

Vincent told The Enterprise this week that some of her absences in 2019 were related to a tumor doctors found attached to her brain that summer. Only one of Emily’s five absences occurred before May. 

“I missed work, too, because I was so sick,” Vincent said this week of the spell of headaches that preceded her diagnosis. Vincent works full-time as a nurse in New York City as well as running her sheep farm.

Kevin Luibrand, Vincent’s attorney, told The Enterprise that, even if the town had had an attendance requirement that Vincent failed to meet, she would be entitled to a hearing.

In the summer of 2019, doctors discovered that Vincent had a brain tumor and she underwent surgery on Jan. 22, 2020. Her Article 78 filing states that on Dec. 27, 2019, she told Todd Schwendeman, who was the chairman of the planning board at the time, that she would take a medical leave for her surgery and subsequent recovery and would miss three meetings in 2020.

The timing of Vincent’s correspondence with Schwendeman highlights the opacity of the town board’s decision to demote her.

“I did not receive any papers or correspondence from the town,” Vincent told The Enterprise last month. “Ever.”

Vincent has since raised over $13,000 through a GoFundMe page to help her with medical and legal expenses as she fights the town’s actions. 

Vincent’s Article 78 petition was filed by Kevin Luibrand of the Luibrand Law Firm, based in Latham. Republican Supervisor Sean Lyons told The Enterprise on Feb. 7 that he had not received any legal correspondence regarding Vincent’s filing. He declined further comment. The town’s attorney, William Conboy III, did not respond to an Enterprise inquiry.

When announcing the letter during Thursday’s meeting, planning board member Lawrence Zimmerman said that the board’s protest against Vincent’s removal was “not a reflection of [Spargo’s] appointment to the board.” 

Luibrand told The Enterprise that Spargo is named as a respondent in the petition because he is the member appointed to the board after Vincent’s removal.

The filing also states that the alternate member position does not exist in New York State Town Law, although the law does state that municipalities can pass laws or ordinances to establish the position, which Berne has.

Planning board member Michael Vincent, who is no relation to Emily Vincent, had his five-year term end on Dec. 31, 2019. The town board could have legally appointed Spargo to fill that post and name him chairman. Instead, the board reappointed Michael Vincent on Jan. 1, 2020 and demoted Emily Vincent to put Spargo on the board as chairman.

Spargo’s appointment generated controversy in and of itself because of his deep history of abusing ethical codes and the power of his office. In 2009, Spargo was convicted of bribery and extortion, committed while he was a State Supreme Court justice, after he took money from lawyers with cases before him so that he could fund accumulating legal fees associated with earlier charges of misconduct. Spargo was disbarred and sentenced to 27 months in prison.

The initial ethical concerns against Spargo were raised by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct when, in 1999, he was campaigning to be a town justice in Berne and handed out $5 gift certificates for gasoline to voters in pizza, alcoholic beverages, cider and donuts over the course of his campaign. The estimated cost of these “gifts” was $2,000.

This, along with other allegations, prompted the Commission to file complaints against Spargo, which he challenged unsuccessfully. 

Spargo’s appointment as chairman of the planning board came despite a unanimous recommendation from the planning board to the town board that Schwendeman continue his tenure. Spargo’s appointment also corresponds with the recent passage of Berne’s industrial scale solar law, which has proved to be a fatal threat to the plans of a company interested in developing industrial solar farms in the town.

“Why don’t we just hire a rapist to the youth council?” Berne resident Barbara Kennedy emphatically asked of the town board at its Jan. 8 regular meeting.

 

“No us-versus-them”

On these already stark and widening divisions in the town, generated by a spate of ostensibly partisan movements such as the removal of Cheryl Baitsholts as Berne’s dog control officer and the hold on appointments to the Youth Council, the Switzkill Farm Board, and the Conservation Advisory Council, Zimmerman was solemn.

“We’re a community of 2,800 people,” Zimmerman said at the Feb. 6 planning board meeting as he discussed the letter. “There’s no us-versus-them … If we can’t talk to one another, then I despair.”

In an email dated Jan. 21, 2020, a Berne resident — whose name is redacted from the screenshot sent to The Enterprise — emailed Supervisor Sean Lyons and excoriated the new board in vulgar language. The subject line of the email read “2020 Changes in Berne.”

“Do you have any idea of the harm you are causing to many of the people of Berne,” the resident wrote, “many of whom are farmers, and/or have been here for generations?”

“You are a group of disgusting, spiteful ignoramuses,” the author continued. “You are cockroaches, and I hope that God will forgive you for all that you have done and are doing.”

In forwarding the message to the town board, Lyons wrote, “No explanation or reference just a miserable tirade.”

“We deserve that,” responded Willsey.

“No! YOU and Karen [Schimmer] and Dawn [Jordan] deserve this,” Mathew Harris, a Republican who was elected to the board alongside Bonnie Conklin last November, wrote back to Willsey and the rest of the board, referencing the three council members who maintained the Democrat majority on the board until Harris and Conklin’s elections. “Bonnie and I had nothing to do with this. Leave us out of it.”

Harris and Conklin voted for each of the resolutions at the Jan. 1 reorganizational meeting this year. On the single resolution that named all the appointments, the town board voted unanimously. Willsey later apologized in a letter to the Enterprise editor, explaining he hadn’t been given any documents by the Republicans in advance of the meeting.

Willsey supplied this conversation to The Enterprise as he called on the town board via email on Feb. 7 to consider increased security at board meetings going forward in response, he said, to “a number of angry tirades in conversations over what is being perceived as your political stunts.”

Willsey has in the past called for increased security at town hall meetings. After Republican councilman Dennis Palow taunted Willsey at a town board meeting in July by saying, “If you keep talking crap about me, Joel, I’ve got something for you.”

The three Democrats on the board at that time voted in September to have a sheriff’s deputy on the premises during meetings and to have residents walk through a metal detector before sitting in the gallery.

That initiative was abandoned once the board majority swung Republican.

Referencing the inflammatory email, Willsey wrote to the current town board, “I think it clearly illustrates that your antics are driving people to do things well beyond what they would ever think of doing and that is dangerous.”

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