Berne clerk won’t seek re-election, criticizes treatment by Dems

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Berne Town Clerk Anita Clayton takes notes at the town’s 2020 reorganizational meeting.

BERNE — Berne Town Clerk Anita Clayton announced in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week that she won’t be seeking a third term, after having worked for the town in various positions for 20 years.

In the same letter, Clayton blasted the Berne Democratic Committee for a “demeaning” interview held last month as it explored candidates for this year’s elections, an allegation that committee Chairman Kevin Crosier denies. 

Clayton, a Democrat, told The Enterprise this week that the interview, which she described as an “interrogation,” was not a factor in her decision to resign.

According to Clayton, the committee asked her to denounce the current Republican-backed administration, which came into control on Jan. 1, 2020, when GOP-backed councilmembers Bonnie Conklin, a Conservative, and Mathew Harris, an Independence Party member, took office alongside Republicans Dennis Palow and Supervisor Sean Lyons, who themselves took office in 2018. 

Councilman Joel Willsey is the sole Democrat on the board, which currently has just four members after Harris’s sudden resignation this year.

“Over and over,” Clayton wrote in her letter, “I was asked to denounce the current administration. What does that mean to denounce someone? It means to condemn, criticize, attack, censure, revile, and vilify someone. That is not who I am nor is it the role of the town clerk to engage in this kind of behavior toward elected officials of the town, town employees, or town residents.”

Neither Clayton, Crosier, nor committee member Larry Zimmerman, who was part of the interview and is on the town’s planning board, would offer details of the questions asked, each stating that such interviews are meant to remain confidential.

However, the general accounts they did offer were contradictory. 

Crosier and Zimmerman both stated that the same questions were asked of the other town clerk candidate, who was not named on the record, with Zimmerman saying that “all candidates were asked roughly the same questions — the only variable being the position for which they were seeking the nomination.” 

Crosier said that the questions regarded “open government, transparency, [and] issues that have been kept from the townspeople.” 

As an example of an issue “kept from the townspeople,” Crosier brought up the Switzkill Farm lawsuit filed against the town and Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy by three Berne residents last November, which wasn’t publicized until this year, after The Enterprise learned of the suit independently.

“The town officials never told anyone,” Crosier said. “They tried to keep it a secret … We asked her what her opinion was of trying to hide stuff like that from the public and she wouldn’t answer those questions. We weren’t asking her to demean anybody; we were just asking what she thought about it. She became immediately combative and refused to answer the questions.”

When told Crosier’s assertion, Clayton told The Enterprise, “Well that’s not true. I did answer the questions. Legal documents are not turned over to the residents of the town as a matter of course, where something is under suit. 

“Just because I have documents does not mean those are public documents,” Clayton continued. “Every single document I get is turned over to the town attorney and they become his documents … Mr. Crosier knows full well the process in the town ….

“I do not take any part of my job lightly. I know what I’m doing and I would not do anything illegal, nor would I turn over anything without consulting our town attorney to make sure I’m following the laws properly.” 

Clayton, whose daughter was married at Switzkill Farm, added that she “supports Switzkill Farm 100 percent,” but that she “can’t do things because of my feelings. I have to follow the legalities of my job.”

Crosier maintained that Clayton “refused to answer” questions in the interview.

Clayton also stated this week that she didn’t feel other candidates could have been asked the same questions she was. “I was asked questions that referred back to when other [Democrat] board members were there and, again, these had nothing to do with my ability to do my job,” Clayton said.

She went on, “I feel that they were asked because what I did was not well-received. Regardless of who sits in those board seats, the town clerk’s job never changes.” 


Freedom of Information

Crosier, who lost his supervisor’s post to Lyons in 2017, said that he had “no complaints” about Clayton, who first began working for the town in 1990 and would later serve as deputy clerk under the late Pat Favreau for about eight years until 2013, when Favreau retired and Clayton was elected town clerk. But, Crosier maintained, under the new GOP-backed administration, it became harder to obtain documents through Freedom of Information Law requests.

Berne’s town clerk is traditionally named the town’s FOIL officer.

The Enterprise has submitted FOIL requests to Clayton several times this past year. Clayton typically acknowledges receipt of the request the same day it’s made — FOIL officers are legally allowed five business days to acknowledge receipt — and gives a date within the 20 business days allowed by law by which a response will be granted, whether it be to supply the requested documents or deny the request. 

Requests from The Enterprise have generally been fulfilled shortly before the promised date. Clayton told The Enterprise that, in estimating the response date, she considers not just the difficulty of the request — which can involve anything from sensitive documents that must undergo redaction, to comparatively simple documents, like a board resolution — but her general workload.

“Again, everything I turn over I review with the town attorney,” Clayton said. “Not everything is FOILable. I set a time limit that I think is reasonable and fair considering what I have as a job load, and sometimes things aren’t always at my fingertips, and some things do take more time. 

“If I get to them sooner I will send them,” she said. “But three to four weeks is not an unreasonable amount of time for a FOIL request because I know some places take months to get FOIL requests.”

In addition to handling FOIL requests, the Berne town clerk, a full-time employee who has aid from a part-time deputy, is responsible for death certificates, dog licenses, meeting minutes, and general resident inquiries, among other things.

“The scope of the job is not understood fully,” Clayton said. “I don’t think I could tell you what I do on a day-to-day basis because it changes every day … It’s the stuff the residents call for, or the board may need, and that stuff changes constantly.” 

Clayton also said that she reviews each FOIL request with the town attorney to ensure that each is handled correctly.

In Crosier’s view, however, the time it takes for Clayton to respond to certain requests is far beyond what he sees as reasonable, given his experience as supervisor.

“There’s a lot of those things that she could literally do in five minutes,” Crosier said. “She could print it and give it to you. The law gives you extra time because you might have volumes of documents that have to be copied, but if you’re just asking for a specific thing, especially when it’s current, there’s no reason it should take 30 days. 

“That’s just a terrible thing to do to a resident,” Crosier continued. “That was one thing that Pat Favreau always did: When she got a FOIL request from a resident, she worked very hard to get it to them. She didn’t make them wait.” 

The New York State Committee on Open Government states that the legally prescribed timeframes “clearly are intended to prohibit agencies from unnecessarily delaying disclosure. They are not intended to permit agencies to wait until the fifth business day following the receipt of a request and then twenty additional business days to determine rights of access, unless it is reasonable to do so based upon ‘the circumstances of the request.’”

Clayton agreed that FOIL requests made before this year were generally answered more quickly, but that is because requests used to be simpler, she said. Given the rising political tensions in Berne, Clayton said, FOIL requests have lately become a “political battleground” and are more involved.

“Again, the FOIL requests that I receive nowadays surround so many legalities that I’m not going to turn it around until I know it’s OK,” Clayton said. “Pat’s FOIL requests were often simplistic. I wasn’t involved in all of them, but some were as simple as copying one piece of paper.

“It’s different now … This is a very busy town that we live in. The town owns a lot of property, deals with a lot of issues, and the town clerk does an incredible amount of work.” 

“I’m sorry that I’m such a stickler,” Clayton also said, “but in all my years as town clerk and deputy town clerk, I’ve never had as many FOIL requests as I have received in the last year. And these FOIL requests are used as a political battleground.

“I don’t think they help our residents … I think they’re very self-serving. I still do them because I’m required to, but I can’t help it if I can’t turn around and click a button and do everything in a day.” 

Clayton also explained that residents have filed requests for records she doesn’t have. 

“I can’t produce what I don’t have,” Clayton said. “FOIL requests are very specific … I cannot be asked ‘Do I have this, do I not have this?’ I send what I have and that’s just the way that FOIL works … You can’t make a document that answers the FOIL request.

“To have this be a point to not support a town clerk,” Clayton said of criticism of her timeliness under the circumstances she describes, “I find pretty absurd.”

When asked by The Enterprise if she’d ever been instructed by another town official to delay a request, Clayton said, “Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I would never compromise who I am for anything. I have always tried to do the right thing, to be helpful and accommodating, and be honest and open. I would never do that. And for someone to make that accusation in a town where I’ve worked for 20 years is very insulting.” 

In a lengthy response to Enterprise questions that’s been published in full as a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, Supervisor Lyons said, in part, that he was sad to hear of Clayton’s decision to retire, angered by the experience she shared in her letter, and concluded that she “will be missed by the residents and me.”


Clayton’s retirement

Clayton, who will be 65 in June, was born in Delmar and moved to Berne as an adult, purchasing property and building her home after friends of hers moved to the area.

“We just loved it,” she told The Enterprise this week. “It’s beautiful.”

She became involved in town government in 1990, accepting the positions of conservation board secretary and zoning board secretary. 

“Then it kind of expanded after that to include some deputy town clerk work, and some building and zoning,” Clayton said. Eventually, around 2005, she was asked by Favreau to interview for deputy town clerk, and she said she’s “been there ever since,” serving as deputy for eight years before Favreau retired and Clayton was elected as her replacement in 2013. 

Clayton said that her favorite aspect of the job has been interacting with the residents. “Having them come in, and meeting so many people, and helping them … I mean the town clerk’s job is like the gateway to the town. You have so many answers and ways to give them information. Sometimes for things that don’t even relate to the town.”

Clayton recalled an incident where a resident got a spam call, not understanding what it was, and called Clayton for help. “It’s just those little things,” she said. “Having the residents come in and chat about different things, crying, laughing, that has always been the favorite part of my job because that has been the most rewarding.” 

As the clerk in a town with a population of only around 3,000 people, Clayton said that handling death certificates could be an emotional experience because “probably 90 percent of the time I knew the person I was doing it for.” 

Reiterating a point she made in her letter to the editor this week, Clayton said that she’ll be available to help guide whoever is elected as her replacement, knowing how difficult a job it is, especially without the professional upbringing that Clayton had under Favreau. 

“I have offered whoever is there to help them through,” Clayton said. “I think it’s very difficult to step into a position like this if you’ve never done it before. Even after working with Pat all those years, I still learn new stuff every day. It takes training, it takes time, it takes remembering all the little aspects of the job.”

“I don’t think it would be the right thing to do to let someone walk in there and not help them transition over,” Clayton added. “In government, unfortunately, it seems to be the play of the day, but I would not do that. It would be punishing the residents.”

She explained that her decision to retire was not related to her stresses with the Democratic Committee “at all” and that she called them because she was curious why they hadn’t reached out to her despite, she heard, seeking candidates for the position. 

“That was very upsetting, but that’s not why I’m leaving,” she said. “I just felt that I have 10 more months to go and, if I ran again, I’d be committed to being there [for four more years] and I just thought that it would be difficult at this time in my life.” 

In her retirement, Clayton hopes to travel and bond with her granddaughter (whom she hopes will soon have siblings). 

“I’ll just sit back and relax a little bit,” Clayton said. “And I will very much miss the residents, but hopefully I’ll still see them.” ​

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