Berne’s new dog-control officer was overly aggressive, says resident

Leo Bartell, a Berne resident, spoke to the Berne Town Board about its decision to change dog control officers.

BERNE — When Berne resident Sarah Stonesifer found a starved and lightly wounded dog in her front yard last month, she took immediate action. Using social media, Stonesifer spread awareness of the lost animal in the hopes that its owner would reach out. 

Instead, she got a call from Jody Jansen, Berne’s new dog-control officer, who she says threatened to call the police if she did not turn the dog over to him voluntarily. Jansen did not return calls from The Enterprise, seeking comment.

“On Jan. 15, I looked out my front door window and saw a very skinny, tail-tucked, scared dog trying to eat a lemon rind in my yard,” Stonesifer told The Enterprise. “I was able to coax her into my garage and get her some food, water and check her over for any injuries.” 

Stonesifer enlisted the help of her cousin, a veterinary technician, who did a more thorough evaluation and found nothing urgently wrong, so Stonesifer set herself to finding the dog’s owner.

“However,” Stonesifer said, “On Jan. 16 at 10:36 a.m., I received a phone call from Berne’s new DCO, Jody Jansen. He identified himself and, instead of offering assistance, he threatened me. A woman, home alone with an infant.

“He threatened to come to my house and forcefully take this dog, which he has no proof is even on my property,” Stonesifer continued. “And when I refused and informed him he is not welcome on my property, which is posted, he threatened to call the police and have them forcefully enter my home.”

Stonesifer is the daughter of Judd Worden, a longtime leader with the volunteer ambulance squad; she changed her last name when she married in 2015. 

“Being a lifelong resident, my father, Judd Worden, has known Jody for many years and was stunned at his behavior toward a resident,” Stonesifer said. 

Stonesifer was adamant that Jansen only took the attitude he did because he thought he was dealing with an “outsider,” not Worden’s daughter.

“Because he didn’t know my [maiden] name, he thought he could call me and bully me,” Stonesifer said. 

After Jansen’s call, Stonesifer reached out to Supervisor Sean Lyons, who apologized for Jansen’s behavior.

“I did apologize,” Lyons told The Enterprise in an email. “I told Sarah that I apologize for any actions that made her feel threatened or unsafe and that is not the image we (Town of Berne) want to portray.” 

Jansen’s tenure as dog-control officer has been mired in controversy, as on New Year’s Day he was named to replace Cheryl Baitsholts, who had been Berne’s dog-control officer for nearly 13 years and had established a strong rapport with residents. 

“When you have no training and you have no law background and you don’t know what you’re doing,” Baitsholts said of Jansen, “that’s what happens.”

At the town board’s first regular meeting in January, Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin — who was elected alongside Mathew Harris in November as voters rallied against decades of a Democrat majority in the town — said that the decision was made because Jansen is a Berne resident while Baitsholts lives in Rensselaerville. 

However, Baitsholts’s removal is in violation of New York State Civil Service Law.

“Dog control officers are in the competitive class and therefore covered under Civil Service Law Section 75,” Deputy Personnel Director for the Albany County Department of Civil Service David Walker told The Enterprise in January. 

Under Civil Service Law, Baitsholts should have been presented with formal charges of misconduct and allowed a hearing. She got neither.

In response to enormous outcry over Baitsholts’s removal from residents at the town board’s regular meeting in February, Conklin said that the board will review its decision and asked Baitsholts if she would be willing to work for the town again. After explaining that she was hurt by the town’s unceremonious dismissal of her, Baitsholts said she would.

However, Supervisor Lyons, at the meeting, asked if Baitsholts, who had long used her own kennels to shelter stray dogs, would be willing to use the town’s kennel at Switzkill Farm, which is being refurbished. 

Baitsholts said no, explaining that the road leading up to the town property was too dangerous to use in the winter.  

At the meeting, other residents questioned who would be in charge of watching over the dogs housed at Switzkill Farm and how much they would be paid.

The dog-control officer post currently pays $6,509 annually, according to the reorganizational meeting agenda.

“You can’t put a dog in a building in the middle of the woods with no people around,” Baitsholts told The Enterprise this week. “Somebody needs to be there to check on them.”

When The Enterprise asked if using Switzkill Farm would be a necessary condition for Baitsholts’s reinstatement and what the progress on the refurbishment was, Lyons indicated that he could not respond right away.

“I am still tracking down information/laws from Ags & Markets regarding municipal kennels and the DCO,” Lyons wrote in an email to The Enterprise. “I am not avoiding these questions, just data-collecting for the most accurate actions and response.”

New York Codes, Rules and Regulations section 77.2 states that, “Every dog seized …. shall be properly cared for, sheltered, fed and watered for the redemption period provided by said article or for the period established by local law or ordinance as authorized by said article.”

The code defines “properly sheltered” as follows:

“Properly sheltered means the provision of shelter suitable to the breed and age of the dog. Said shelter shall be structurally sound, clean, and sufficient to protect the dog from detriment to its well-being, and shall provide space to allow the dog to move about in a natural manner, light, air and temperature sufficient to protect the animal.” 

News of the Switzkill Farm kennel broke at the February town board meeting after a resident asked where Jansen would keep dogs he found, as it had appeared until that meeting that he had not yet secured a location. 

Lyons then informed residents of the Switzkill Farm kennel refurbishing and said that the town of Knox agreed to shelter dogs in the meantime.

“I have communicated with Supervisor Lyons and DOC Jansen and offered our kennel to them if they needed it,” Knox Town Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis told The Enterprise this week.

In defending Baitsholts, many residents have pointed to the savings she generated for the town by using her own kennel, rather than paying fees associated with housing dogs at the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society.

While Mohawk Hudson charged Westerlo’s dog warden, Justin Case, $375 to hold an animal for one week, Baitsholts charged $15 per day for storage in her kennel, which would come to $105 for a week. 

For other residents, though, it was Baitsholts’s kindness and compassion that made her a good dog warden. Several also lauded her extensive use of social media to quickly pair a lost dog with its owner.

When Alene Mack, of Medusa, lost her dog, Baitsholts stayed in contact with her for the four days it took to locate the dog, Mack wrote in a letter to the Enterprise editor

“For four days, 24 hours a day, that woman texted with me, talked to me, listened to me, answered every ridiculous question and concern I had, would pick me up and drive around so I wasn’t doing it alone, used social media and her amazing network she has built to help spread the word locally, gave me suggestions and advice, and gave me hope when I was losing mine time and time again,” Mack wrote. 

Stonesifer reiterated that point when she spoke to The Enterprise.

“You really have to have compassion for this job,” she said. “[Jansen] is not the most level-headed person.”

More Hilltowns News

  • A state audit has revealed that Knox Town Clerk Traci Schanz failed to deposit more than 300 fee collections within the legally required timeframes and made reporting errors that left the town with an unremitted cash balance of more than $3,000, according to a report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller. Schanz said she is grateful for what she learned from the audit and new procedures have been put in place.

  • A Black Lives Matter rally planned by Berne resident Laurie Searl has drawn strong criticism on Facebook, leaving some would-be attendants worried about a counter-protest that could turn violent, as has happened both locally and across the country.

  • Berne’s town attorney Javid Afzali informed the town board at its July 22 meeting that the controversial Switzkill Farm property may have been acquired illegally because the 2014 town board did not allow for a permissive referendum following the purchase authorization. Then-supervisor Kevin Crosier tells The Enterprise that no referendum was required.

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