Townsend resigns as Berne’s building inspector

BERNE — Chance Townsend, the town of Berne’s building and zoning administrator, is resigning at the end of this month after a little over a year in a post that generated controversy for a politically divided town board.

Townsend said on Wednesday afternoon that he was quitting for personal reasons. He said he had informed the town board around the beginning of this month. The Berne Town Board accepted his resignation at their Wednesday night meeting.

Townsend was appointed building inspector at Berne’s reorganization meeting on Jan. 1, 2018. The summer prior he started working on maintenance for the town, which Townsend said he stopped doing shortly after being appointed building inspector.

“Several town board members don’t take this department seriously and don’t take my job seriously and don’t think that a full-time position is warranted and I’m not going to stay here and be under the scrutiny of all these things without having the necessary tools to conduct this job,” Townsend told The Enterprise.

The town members he said he was referring to were the ones who voted against things like increasing his hours.

“It’s all reflected in the votes,” he said.

Councilman Dennis Palow, a Republican, said that he voted against the decision to decrease Townsend’s hours during the budget process, which he said the three Democratic town board members — Karen Schimmer, Dawn Jordan, and Joel Willsey — voted in favor of.

“I wanted Chance to stay full-time,” Palow said told The Enterprise on Wednesday.

Palow said that he deferred to Townsend’s request to keep it full-time.

“He’s the one doing the job, I’m not,” he said.

Less than three months into his new position, Townsend had caused controversy by asking the then-tenants of the retreat house at the town-owned Switzkill Farm to leave the premises after he discovered smoke detectors and a sprinkler system weren’t working. The town had bought the property from Buddhists and the two long-time tenants, both Buddhists, were not allowed to return for weeks, and one declined to come back.

The issue of whether the tenants should have been evacuated divided the board. Republican Supervisor Sean Lyons and Palow, who had visited the property prior to the inspection along with Berne’s GOP chairman and highway superintendent, Randy Bashwinger, noted code violations while Democrats like Councilwoman Schimmer were concerned for the tenants and critical of the fact the town board had not been informed of their expulsion.

Townsend was later the subject of complaints by two different residents: Emily Vincent, who Townsend had incorrectly said violated the zoning code by building a temporary greenhouse without a permit; and Thomas Crary, who has threatened to sue the town after he said Townsend and previous building inspectors had neglected to discipline his neighbors for zoning code violations, causing him to receive under-value offers for his house, which he is trying to sell.

Townsend told The Enterprise that neither Vincent’s nor Crary’s complaints about him were reasons for his resignation.

When asked about Crary’s complaints last month, Townsend said he needed more hours, more staff, and better tools to address his heavy workload; he reiterated this sentiment when speaking to The Enterprise on Wednesday. When he was initially hired, he worked about 15 hours a week. He said that it wasn’t until after he reviewed the state requirements for the job that he realized the full scope of his work.

“Originally I thought it was going to be part-time work,” he said.

The town board later increased his hours to 35 a week, but this was later decreased to 30 hours a week in the 2019 budget. According to Townsend’s 2018 report, he had to handle a total of 63 permits of several different varieties, historic reviews, and variances.

“They need to back the department and they need to make it more a full-time job and put on more people,” Townsend said of the town board.

He also told The Enterprise that issues with the department have been going on long before he took the position.

“If they wanted to see the improvements — they’ve been on the board for many years — they would have done it some years ago,” he said.

Councilwoman Jordan, a Democrat, said that she believes Townsend had enough hours to do his job, and that Schimmer had spoken with a labor consultant in early 2018, to determine the number of hours needed.

“His opinion was that no town our size has at least the 34 hours he had last year,” Jordan said, later adding that the reduction to 30 hours a week in 2019 was a small decrease.

Schimmer told The Enterprise on Wednesday that she contacted the labor-relations consultant last year because the board had been discussing Townsend’s hours. She believes the current hours are adequate, noting that the previous code-enforcement officer did the job at 15 hours a week.

Jordan said she believes Townsend’s training had probably increased his workload when he started the job, but said that this needs to be “taken out of the equation” of determining what hours he needed.

She declined to discuss the reasons for his resignation.

“His reasons are his own,” Jordan said.

Jordan also said that both the incidents involving Vincent and Crary are being discussed by the town board. She declined to say if anything else was being discussed involving Townsend, and declined to comment on whether Townsend had done his job satisfactorily.

“Both of those things were certainly items of concern to the town board,” she said.

“I think it is an important position, and I have a great deal of respect for the department and what it needs to do,” Schimmer told The Enterprise on Wednesday. She declined to comment on Townsend’s job performance.

“I think that he’s done an excellent job, and I’m sorry to see him go,” said Palow. He said Townsend helped the town and had been trying to get town buildings up to code.

Townsend, who has lived in Berne for about four years, said he previously worked as a builder and developer for many years, and said he will probably return to that field after he leaves his position with the town.

At the Wednesday night town board meeting, Schimmer suggested advertising for two separate positions to split the workload, and also provided a draft of a priority schedule for complaints and a complaint form for the office. From the gallery, Townsend asked why he had not received this information in the 13 months he had asked for it while on the job.

Town Clerk Anita Clayton noted that the position is under the Civil Service system. A job candidate would have to receive training as a code-enforcement officer, town attorney William Conboy later added.

“So the town is at a standstill until the code-enforcement officer is fully trained?” asked resident Jean Guarino, from the gallery.

Lyons said that, according to the town code, he would have to assume the responsibilities of the code-enforcement officer if needed. The county could also have someone serve as code-enforcement officer if needed, but the county would then collect the fees, said Schimmer.

More Hilltowns News

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  • The Berne Town Board held a public hearing on a new animal-control law this week and received mostly minor suggestions for alteration from a public that seemed largely pleased with the proposed regulations. 

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    In an otherwise perfunctory meeting, the Berne Town Board made two key appointments on New Year’s Day: Albert Thiem to the town board, replacing former councilwoman Bonnie Conklin, who resigned; and former State Supreme Court Justice and convicted felon Thomas Spargo as chairman of the zoning board of appeals.

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