Berne Town Board throws out super’s decision to do away with liaisons

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
Berne Councilwoman Karen Schimmer, right, reads a resolution to have the positions of liaisons reinstated. Supervisor Sean Lyons, left, had said he was going to do away with the positions at Berne’s reorganizational meeting in January.

BERNE — In a 3-to-2 vote at its Feb. 13 meeting, the Berne Town Board reestablished the positions of board liaisons after Supervisor Sean Lyons decided at the beginning of this year to do away with the posts.

Wednesday’s split vote was divided along party lines. The Republican supervisor had made the announcement at the town’s reorganizational meeting, shocking Democratic board members. Lyons had said he wanted department heads to communicate directly with the town board.

Democratic Councilwoman Karen Schimmer introduced a resolution at Wednesday’s meeting to re-establish town board liaisons to Berne’s conservation board, planning board, zoning board, sewer district, transfer station, Switzkill Farm Board, and youth council as well as to the Helderberg Senior Services, senior meals program, and the Berne Public Library Board of Trustees; the resolution called for the liaisons to give verbal report at each month’s town board meeting.

Schimmer said on Thursday she had drafted the resolution to emphasize the role that liaisons play in town government, and how departments may consult liaisons on things like town law.

“It helps provide a healthy, effective, and efficient mode of communication,” she said.

Fellow Democratic council members Dawn Jordan and Joel Willsey voted with Schimmer in favor of the resolution; Lyons and Councilman Dennis Palow, both Republicans, voted against it. The supervisor did not return a call for comment this week before press time.

Lyons told The Enterprise in January that he felt that department heads would be better communicating directly with him or by giving their own oral reports during a meeting’s public comment period or by submitting written reports ahead of time. At the Feb. 13 meeting, Willsey pointed out that Lyons could still communicate with department heads as he had described.

Lyons had also said that liaisons were appointed at his discretion, giving him the authority to do away with the positions. On Thursday, Schimmer said that board members had not found anything backing up his claim, and had the resolution reviewed and approved by the town attorney before presenting it to the board.

A decision made in 2003 in Erie County Supreme Court — the lowest level in the state’s three-tiered court system — in which the Clarence Town Board sued its supervisor, Kathleen Hallock, and lost, may be the only partly relevant case law on the matter; the decision references only a 1906 decision.

The court ruled that Hallock, when faced with a motion to oust a liaison, “did not act improperly” in refusing a town board vote. The decision considers liaisons as “‘committees’ of one.” New York State Town Law gives a supervisor the power to appoint committees. However, this case does not address doing away with the system of board liaisons altogether.

In 2018, Jordan served as the liaison to the planning and zoning boards as well as  to the Hilltown Seniors; Schimmer served as the Switzkill Farm Board and senior-meals-program liaison. The senior programs are not part of town government but use the town-owned senior center.

Willsey served as the liaison to the conservation board and the town’s transfer station; Palow served as the liaison for the youth council and highway department; and Lyons served as the liaison for the town library’s board of trustees.

Palow said on Thursday that he decided not to serve as the youth council liaison as he had in 2018 because he had supported Lyons’s decision do away with the positions, and said Lyons’s plan should have been given at least a trial run.

He described Schimmer’s resolution, which he said he was informed about on Tuesday, as going “behind the supervisor’s back.”

Schimmer said she had volunteered to serve as the youth council liaison, but said a board consensus has not yet been reached on the matter. Schimmer said that she spoke with Lyons before Wednesday night’s meeting and that he had said he would prefer the board members keep their previous positions, which she said she agreed with also.

Schimmer also said that the position of a liaison for the highway department — Palow’s other liaison position — was not included because highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger, who is also the berne Republican Party chairman, already gives a regular report at town board meetings.

During 2018, Berne Public Library Manager Kathy Stempel and Berne Youth Council Chairwoman Jean Guarino have also given reports after they were appointed that year.

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