Highway super’s placement of election signs was unsafe

To the Editor:

I recently initiated a Berne Town Board conversation about the uncontrolled number, size, and location of temporary election signs in Berne in 2017 and suggested that regulation of temporary signs could be much better addressed in the town code.

The erection of permanent signs is regulated to a much more significant degree and much of the rationale for the regulation of permanent signs applies to temporary signs.  

And as the Berne superintendent of highways knows, the state does not permit the erection of signs on the public right of way (ROW). He is also aware that it is not legal to set foot on NY ROW to do any work there without an approved permit.

I don’t represent the state’s Department of Transportation here and have never been involved in such a permitting process but, as I understand, any superintendent of highways has to be aware that even municipalities require these permits. An understanding of the state regulations would be beneficial as we adjust the code to better address temporary signs and this is why he was part of that conversation.

Public safety should always be the priority in state and municipal operations on the public ROW. The state regulations offer some insight that the town board could consider in addressing this issue. It would appear the state work permit requires that the safety of those working on the ROW be addressed as well as the safety of the traveling public while the work is performed.  

If a superintendent of highways knowingly misleads an unpermitted group of people onto the state ROW at numerous locations to do work, specifically for the erection of inordinately large billboards that are not permitted there, and when the purpose of the billboards is his personal benefit, I think the basic elements of official misconduct have been demonstrated.

Work-zone safety is clearly an inherent part of the superintendent’s official responsibilities. As I understand, requirements like warning signs, reflective clothing, location of vehicles in the ROW, delivery of equipment and materials, time when such work is allowed, and flashing beacons are some examples of elements considered in the permit-approval process.   

A superintendent of highways who knowingly leads a group of ill-equipped people to work on the state highway without the required permit, in my opinion, knowingly risked the safety of the traveling public and those workers. Again, in my opinion, this entire exercise was for the personal benefit of the superintendent of highways.

I believe regulations to address worker safety and safety of the traveling public were ignored in the erection and then again in the dismantling and removal of these billboards. The billboards were designed to promote his status as a “Rising Star” politician and to secure himself a $50,000 tax-paid job with benefits.

I am not a lawyer, but I see the elements of official misconduct here. I think an investigation is in order.

To approve the erection of anything on a state ROW, I believe plans stamped by a professional engineer would be required. The structure and its location are important safety considerations.

Billboards have large surface areas and, if not supported with and adequately attached to posts of sufficient integrity, they could blow unexpectedly into the highway. An engineer would have to evaluate the proposed sign installations considering the anticipated wind loads.

We had some 200 haphazardly erected, hand-crafted signs in our town in 2017. Some, like the ones at the senior center, were very clearly hazards that hampered state highway sight distance.  

For the purposes of the code discussion, the town board needs to consider limiting the size of temporary signs to address a lot of the potential for the problems noted above. Small, light campaign signs limited in height are much less likely to become so hazardous.

The town was overwhelmed with an inordinate number of signs on the public ROW in 2017, apparently placed there by a crew led by the superintendent. All these signs are distractions to the traveling public and don’t belong on the public ROW.

Many blew into the highway repeatedly in this windy environment. And the erection of hundreds of even small signs on the public ROW exposes the traveling public and the crew necessary to place and retrieve this inordinate number to the same hazards described above for the billboards.  

These small plastic signs can eliminate stopping traction when they blow into the road. I saw a vehicle nearly enter Route 85 at Mallory’s Corners in East Berne (with traffic approaching). One front wheel ended up on one of those plastic signs.

Drivers are looking up and down Route 85 for traffic and sometimes don’t notice the signs lying flat on the pavement on windy mornings during election season. These signs belong on the lawns of people who actually support that candidate, not on the public ROW. They are more likely to be cared for on someone’s lawn and they actually reflect the support of a person, not a crew led by a politician.

While all this work with election signs took place, the superintendent knowingly allowed brush on the town ROW to continue to interfere with and eliminate adequate visibility of stop signs. This was a serious public-safety issue he was made aware of a year earlier in 2016, yet nothing was done to address this in 2017 when it was again brought to his attention in The Enterprise.

Instead, misleading falsehoods were published by the superintendent about the stop signs and all these election signs were erected by the superintendent of highways instead. There was no apparent concern whatsoever for dangerous missing and obscured stop signs in Berne.  

Is a superintendent of highways who knowingly endangers the public in illegal acts on the highway while promoting himself really fit to serve in that office? If he or she deliberately ignores brush on town ROW that interferes with the visibility of stop signs and publishes false and misleading statements and photos instead of simply cutting the brush, is that person fit to serve in that office?

Keeping the stop signs visible is a responsibility clearly inherent in the nature of the responsibilities of that office. This appears to be yet another example of official misconduct deserving of investigation.  

Joel Willsey

Berne Town Council

Editor’s note: Randy Bashwinger, who is Berne’s highway superintendent and Republican Party chairman, said that about 150 campaign signs were erected by himself, other members of the town Republican party, and other town residents. He said that he did not have any town workers install signs. Bashwinger said he did not get a permit but was not aware he needed one, saying that he believed signs could be placed almost anywhere during election season.

The signs were made of scrap plywood, said Bashwinger, and the sign in question, at the intersection of routes 85 and 443, which included his name as well as half-a-dozen others running on the Republican line, was around four feet tall and six to eight feet wide. He said that the sign was placed in a dip so that it was lower to the ground and he believes it did not interfere with drivers’ vision. He said that the signs never blew into the road, and were driven into the ground with metal fence stakes.

Bashwinger said that stop signs not on a town road are the responsibility of the state or the county. A town highway worker is assigned to trim brush around signs, Bashwinger said, and residents can call to request this service.

Joel Willsey responded to Randy Bashwinger’s comments, stating: “I’m not suggesting that the superintendent used town employees. But he did take a crew of ill-equipped, untrained political associates to work in the highway while ignoring state regulations. The signs at the Senior Center clearly interfered with highway sight distance and that could obviously contribute to a serious accident on the state highway ... The iPhone-dated photos (2016, 2017, and 2018), emails (and clippings from The Enterprise) that I provided with this submission irrefutably prove that the superintendent knowingly left “stop” signs obscured with brush on the town right-of-way for years, and at intersections with no state or county roads at all."