Just as eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, the fruits of democracy need constant tending

A town board is a legislative body — that is, it can make laws. But a town board is not above the law.

The Berne Town Board recently botched an attempt at drafting and passing a law that would have allowed all-terrain vehicles on town roads.

We believe, if it had not been for the assiduous reporting of our Hilltown reporter, Noah Zweifel, the ill-advised law may have slipped through without much public notice.

Zweifel first wrote the board was considering such a proposal last November when he detailed Berne Planning Board Chairman Joe Martin’s dream of more plentiful riding opportunities for ATV enthusiasts in the Hilltowns through a trail network administered by the Hilltown Riders, a private club.

The plan got a thumbs up from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office as Commander Tom Praisner told the board that law enforcement could increase its presence in Berne to ensure that any influx of riders did not create problems for residents and those passing through the town.

Maybe this should have been an early red flag of the sheriff’s office involving itself in supporting proposed legislation.

Gradually, as the public became aware of the bill, some citizens raised concerns. In January, Zweifel wrote of Irish Hill residents voicing worries about safety to the town board.

Supervisor Dennis Palow chided them for not attending meetings earlier, when the topic was also discussed, saying, “We’ve been having meetings about ATVs for several months, and I haven’t seen any of you all here before, but it’s been on the agenda.”

This, too, should have raised a red flag. An elected town leader should be eager to hear residents’ concerns, not defensive about his own agenda.

As public resistance mounted, and our opinion pages were filled with letters pointing out problems with the bill, Zweifel detailed how the proposed law went directly against guidance provided by a number of organizations, from consumer groups and state agencies to ATV safety groups and vehicle manufacturers.

He also created a map, highlighting the roads that would become open for ATV use, making it clear most were not connected to areas that allow ATV riding nor connected to each other.

Zweifel also wrote about various municipalities across the state that passed similar laws and had been successfully sued by residents because they failed to meet certain conditions, such as proving the necessity of ATV-friendly roadways and that the laws don’t negatively impact the environment. 

All of this coverage and the social-media swirl it engendered led to a Feb. 8 hearing that was postponed because the meeting hall was packed beyond allowed capacity.

As we’ve written before on this page, the current board is not attuned to its residents. Nevermind the board should have realized a bigger venue was needed; more importantly, it should have realized the bill was flawed — having gone through no environmental review and running afoul of state guidance — and wildly unpopular with residents.

But the insularity and hubris of the board reached new and dangerous levels at the Feb. 20 hearing held at the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school auditorium. (You can watch these events unfold in a video recorded by Berne resident Ron Jordan.)

The first resident to speak was Kevin Crosier, a Democrat and former town supervisor ousted by the Republicans in 2017. Certainly, there is bad political blood on both sides between Crosier and his successors.

But elected officials should not use their posts to wreak vengeance. Nor should they use police to break the law.

The principle here is an important one and central to democracy. A resident speaking in opposition to a proposed law at a public hearing should not be forcibly silenced, ushered out by armed deputies at the decree of the town supervisor.

Without our First Amendment rights, the people have no voice.

All Crosier managed to say before he was interrupted was, “Thank you for allowing me to speak this evening. It’s the town board’s responsibility to protect the health, safety, and financial stability of the community.”

Zweifel wrote into the wee hours of the next morning to carefully delineate the state and federal laws that appear to have been violated by Crosier’s forced removal.

Citizens writing letters to us, just like those in the booing crowd at the hearing, understood the egregious wrong even without the legal citations.

Berne resident Mary Ann Ronconi wrote of the sheriff’s deputies who acted at Palow’s behest, “They were there not to serve a dictatorial public servant but to ensure everyone’s, including Mr. Crosier’s, right to the safe expression of constitutionally protected speech The Albany County Sheriff would do well to brief his deputies on the Bill of Rights before sending them out to police public gatherings.”

Resident Kathy Hill Brown wrote, “In the end, Mr. Crosier was not permitted to address the town board for his allotted three minutes. His opinions were not allowed into the record. His First Amendment rights, violated.”

Joel Willsey wrote in with a more sinister view. Our readers are familiar with Willsey because, as the lone Democrat on a Republican-controlled board — he did not seek re-election — Willsey often wrote letters highlighting wrongdoing.

With last week’s letter, he send pages of documents on earlier investigations The Enterprise had covered as they were unfolding — the town board spent $15,000 of taxpayers’ money fruitlessly investigating Democrats — as he asserted, “The town supervisor once again violated the First Amendment, this time by colluding with police officers he had arranged to be ready and waiting in the wings to bodily remove a resident and silence him simply because the supervisor considers him a political rival.”

Willsey went on in his letter, with documents to back him up, to report on sheriff’s deputies he said had been used to interrogate him. “This is pure autocracy,” wrote Willsey. “Don’t worry about democracy — it’s already gone! Most with opposing ideas or views have been driven away by weaponization of code enforcement, intimidation, harassment, and people who think it is appropriate to waste everyone’s time scheduling a public hearing based on an unreviewed ‘rough draft?’”

In 2020, when the Republicans first took control of the town board, a board that included Palow, they acted hastily and illegally. As we wrote on this page at the time, a town board is not above the law.

One of the steps board members took at their very first meeting, on Jan. 1, 2020, was to demote Emily Vincent, who was serving ably on the planning board, to the status of alternate, so they could install their choice for a new chairman, Thomas Spargo.

New York State Town Law set up planning boards so that appointed members would not be changed wholesale with a town’s changing political winds. The law sets long terms — five years for a five-member board and seven years for a seven-member board. This ensures that members gain experience with the complexities of planning and allows long-term members to inform new ones.

Planning boards are important because they guide a town in creating laws and make irreversible decisions on how a town develops.

According to law, appointed planning board members are to fill out their full terms. The law states, “The town board shall have the power to remove, after public hearing, any member of the planning board for cause.”

“They fired me without even contacting me,” Vincent told us on New Year’s Day in 2020.

Challenging a town board decision, even an illegal one, takes gumption and money. Vincent — the only woman and only farmer on the board — had both.

She raised money with a GoFundMe drive and won in court. The town’s central argument had been that, because Vincent had been installed as an alternate on Jan. 1 with the same term limit, she was not technically removed from the board.

“Under statute and the local law,” the judge wrote, “the duties of alternate planning board members are limited; they are not empowered to act on the whole range of matters that come before the planning board.”

“Thus,” the judge concluded, “the Town Board’s January 2020 resolution appointing petitioner to the position of ‘Planning Board Member, Alternate’ was tantamount to removing her from her position as ‘Full Planning Board Member.’

Vincent’s victory was hollow, though, because the board simply replaced her the next time they could legally do so.

While Willsey believes democracy is gone in Berne, we believe there is still hope. And that lies with the people. A democracy, as we all need to keep reminding ourselves, is a government powered by the people.

We will keep doing our job as journalists to inform the people of Berne. But it is up to the Berne citizens to use that power.

We are not advocating here for any one political party. We are pointing out, though, that in the last local elections, citizens didn’t heed the warning signs in the many stories we wrote on improper handling of finances, false investigations, or outright law-breaking.

The choice and responsibility to make your government work lies with you — the people.

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