Berne reckoning: Crowd questions, berates town board actions

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel
Konrad May, Westerlo's deputy dog warden, speaks in support of Cheryl Baitsholts  who had been Berne’s dog control officer for 12-and-a-half years before being replaced by the town board on Jan. 1.

BERNE — Pain, humility, and seething anger were stark in the air at Berne’s Feb. 12 town board meeting as the board established a public hearing for the removal of the Switzkill Farm Board and said that it may reconsider the dismissal of long-time dog-control officer Cheryl Baitsholts.

Dozens of residents swarmed the newly conservative council to demand answers for a slew of administrative changes made by the board that range from illegal to, in residents’ eyes, deeply immoral. 

“You made a mistake,” Lawrence Zimmerman told the board. “Let’s face it.”

Zimmerman is a member of the planning board who, last week, signed a letter with the rest of the planning board — minus its new chairman, Thomas Spargo — that criticized the town for demoting farmer Emily Vincent as a full member to an alternate. Vincent is suing the town because her demotion violated New York State Town Law. 

“It’s called due process,” said Zimmerman. “It’s the Constitution. Any time I get to say that to a judge, I know I’ve won my case.”

A retired trial lawyer, Zimmerman did not mince words when addressing town attorney William Coboy III, who, earlier in the meeting, had declined to comment on Vincent’s case on the basis of it being open litigation. Before Vincent sued, Conboy had not answered Enterprise questions on Vincent’s demotion.

“Stupid,” Zimmerman said of Conboy’s refusal to address the matter.

Zimmerman was one of at least 22 speakers who packed into the meeting — which was advertised as an open forum where the town council would address residents’ concerns directly. About a third of the dozens-strong crowd supported the board, including Spargo and the town’s highway workers, whose boss, Randy Bashwinger, is also chairman of the town GOP.

Until the meeting, the town board had mostly resisted questions about the removal of Cheryl Baitsholts as the town’s dog control officer, Emily Vincent as a full member of the planning board, Timothy Doherty as a volunteer on the planning board, and Todd Schwendeman as the planning board’s chairman; as well as Supervisor Sean Lyons’s ability to sign town checks without board authorization, the hold placed on the conservation and Switzkill Farm boards, and several of the town’s new appointments.

But over the course of three hours last Wednesday, the town board did answer questions, though not always to the audience’s satisfaction. 

Dog control

When a resident asked why the town removed Baitsholts, who housed dogs in her own kennel during the 13 years she had been dog-control officer, with Jody Jansen, who before the meeting did not appear to have a place to kennel stray dogs, Lyons proudly — if not smugly — announced that the town had a kennel on the Switzkill Farm property that was being refurbished. 

Questions flew about the safety of those who might visit the farm while a dog that’s potentially infected with rabies is being held there, and who would take care of the dogs, and how much that person would be paid. 

“This is ridiculous,” Bonnie Conklin said, over the outcry. “We’re going to review this. Can we have two [dog control officers]? Let’s review this.”

“If we were to reappoint you,” Conklin asked of Baitsholts, who was in the audience, “would you come back?”

Baitsholts said she would, and the gallery broke out in applause.

At that moment, Conklin became the first board member — besides Joel Willsey, the board’s lone Democrat and an outspoken critic of the town GOP — to go up against the board majority and the first to offer sympathy to the angry residents.


Switzkill Farm

Her reprieve soon ended, though, when a resident asked about the town board’s audits of the conservation and Switzkill Farm boards which, in the meantime, are on hold and unable to meet as usual.

“I guess it’s still being worked through,” Lyons said before noting that he feels the Switzkill Farm Board, when planning for an event, should report to the town board. 

“With the events that you have planned,” Lyons continued, “we’re not stopping them. We’re allowing you to move forward with them.”

Willsey interjected that the motion suspending activity of those boards, made by Conklin at the Jan. 1 reorganizational meeting, orders that the boards’ “activities, meetings, and appointments cease pending outcome of the audit.”

“So you’d reverse that?” Willsey asked.

“In a fashion, yes,” Lyons responded. 

As debate over the language of the motion continued and whether the motion needed to be rescinded or Lyons’s verbal permission sufficed, Conklin, in what appeared to be a moment of frustration, made a motion to set a public hearing for the removal of the Switzkill Farm Board, which would give the town board oversight of the property. 

“I was not for Switzkill Farm, like many other residents of this village and town,” Conklin said.

The town bought the farm in 2014 for $475,000 under the leadership of Democratic supervisor Kevin Crosier, acquiring 350 acres with two large buildings and several outbuildings. Grants covered all but $112,500 which came out of Berne’s capital projects fund. The purchase was controversial and Republicans have pushed it as a campaign issue. 

When a resident accused Conklin of not working for the town, the usual decorum she had held at meetings since her swearing-in was lost.

“I am,” she shouted. “But I’m also representing people outside this door that are not here tonight.” 

More calmly, Conklin later explained to the audience that she envisions a park committee that oversees all the parks in Berne.

“We have the town park, we have the pocket park,” Conklin said, “and, I don’t know, it’d be nice to have a park up in East Berne, so why can’t we combine parks?”

A resident then asked if, in the meantime, the motion that placed the board on hold could be pulled back.

“That motion you passed on the first says we can’t even have a meeting,” he said, “and you’re telling us now that things can just go on as normal. We can’t do that.”

“Right,” Conklin said. “Because you’re on hold.”

“So no Winterfest,” another resident said. 

Conklin shrugged. 

“Oh my god,” gasped a resident in the audience, inaudible to the board. 

“Where did this come from?” Willsey asked of the motion to hold a public hearing to eliminate the Switzkill Farm Board.

“I’m a board member,” Conklin retorted. “I can make a motion … just as you all.”

“Yeah, you can,” Willsey said, “but I’m not eliminating the board.”

“Then vote nay,” Conklin shouted, trying to raise her voice over the clamor of the audience.

 “I’m not voting,” Willsey said.

“See,” said Conklin. “You guys just don’t want to work with us.”

It was unclear whether she was referring to the former members of the Switzkill Farm Board, the audience, or Democrats in the town.

“Dictatorship,” murmured a resident.

Conklin’s motion to introduce a law that would eliminate the Switzkill Farm Board was seconded by Councilman Dennis Palow and passed with all but Willsey voting “aye.” Willsey abstained. 

Karen Schimmer soon stood up, a former Democrat councilwoman who immediately preceded Conklin and Councilman Mathew Harris but did not seek re-election last year, and rebuked “those people who have not bothered to engage themselves” with Switzkill Farm and encouraged them to learn more about the functions of the property and the unpaid board that oversees it.

“The Switzkill Farm Board does a lot, Bonnie,” Schimmer said.

Conklin rolled her eyes.

“Neither Mr. Harris nor Ms. Conklin has attended a meeting of either the Switzkill Farm board or the conservation board,” Schimmer said. “Nor have they talked with any of their board members or attended any of the board-sponsored events. In two years, as leaders of our community, Mr. Lyons has attended only one Switzkill Farm board meeting … and Mr. Palow attended nothing.

“The liaison reports, which the last board insisted upon,” Schimmer continued, “were given at town board meetings to inform the town board members of what was happening with the public activities initiative. But this board discontinued that. It is clear that the town board has chosen to ignore any and all activities undertaken by these two groups.

“Had they been sincere in their efforts to learn about these boards, rather than disbanding them,” Schimmer said, “they might have attended some of their meetings. Had they really been interested in improving their performance, they could have met with them, talked with them, planned with them. It would have been the respectful thing to do. But it seems evident that that is not their goal … Instead they chose to keep their prejudice intact and ban them from existence.”

Schimmer acknowledged that the youth council was not subject to the same audits or criticisms despite not keeping minutes or holding meetings regularly.

“Budgets shoddily crafted [by the youth council] and nearly unreadable are presented to the town board,” Schimmer said. “Compare that to the neatly organized and developed budget by the Switzkill Farm Board. No one is interested in comparisons, but given the noticeable difference in functioning, it seems curious that only the Switzkill Farm and conservation boards are subject to scrutiny.”

The town board unanimously agreed that the conservation board and Switzkill Farm Board could continue to meet. 


“Brand new”

As the meeting careened toward its end, Harris gave a speech, its impact uncertain, about his dedication to the town amid the controversies, hardships, and illegalities.

“I’m a brand new councilman,” Harris announced. “And I’m obligated to make the assumption that the laws and the policies set down previously for the town of Berne are the product of careful, thoughtful and legal efforts of all the people who have come before me in this position … I have a huge learning curve. I have to look at all of this, I have to make the best decision, I have to listen to all of you and I have to apply that.

“I believe in the town of Berne and its people, or I wouldn’t be sitting here,” Harris continued. “I believe in the future of the town and I believe our success depends on the community involvement, participation in our town, the boards and committees and that those people are going to supply us — me — with the necessary input and direction and the services that will benefit all of us.

“Thank you all for your inputs and comments, “Harris concluded. “From me, you have been heard.”


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