After hearing, Berne farmer confident she’ll regain planning-board post

BERNE — Flanked by supporters, Berne farmer Emily Vincent was tearful before she stepped into Acting Supreme Court Justice Denise A. Hartman’s chambers with her lawyer, Kevin Luibrand, to argue that she had been illegally removed as a full member of the town planning board and made an alternate.

“I just don’t know why I have to do this,” Vincent said to her entourage. 

At Berne’s reorganizational meeting on Jan. 1, Vincent was removed as a full member of the planning board with no explanation. She was replaced by Thomas Spargo — a former New York State Supreme Court Justice convicted of bribery and extortion in 2009 and sentenced to 27 months in prison — who was also named chairman.

“We’ve got your back,” responded Dawn Jordan, a former Berne councilwoman who spoke on behalf of the five others grouped around Vincent. The group included Councilman Joel Willsey; former councilwoman Karen Schimmer; Barbara Kennedy; and Conservation Board Chair Kathleen Moore — all Berne residents and all Democrats — as well as Cheryl Baitsholts of Rensselaerville who lost her job as Berne’s dog-control officer when she was not reappointed by the town board on Jan. 1.

The town was represented by its attorney, William Conboy III, and had support in the gallery from Spargo, Councilman Dennis Palow, Councilman Mathew Harris, Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger. Bashwinger is Berne’s GOP chairman; both councilmen were backed by the Republicans.

Vincent herself is a member of the Green Party.

Inside the chamber, Luibrand and Conboy presented differing interpretations of what it means to remove someone from a post that is protected by New York State Town Law. 

The law states that a member of the planning board cannot be removed before the end of his or her term unless it’s for cause, which is to be considered during a public hearing.

“[Vincent] cannot be summarily removed,” Luibrand told the judge. “There’s no authority for that.”

Luibrand also highlighted the limited capacity of an alternate member, who is authorized to vote with the rest of the planning board only when there’s a conflict of interest, to illustrate that the change in title was not a lateral one.

Conboy contested that, because the alternate member of the planning board will soon receive the same annual salary of $1,750 — equal to that of full members — it’s not fair to consider the alternate position lesser or substantially different. 

He acknowledged, though, that there is currently no law that allows the town board to pay the alternate member of the planning board, even though that money is allotted in the final 2020 budget.

“We fully anticipate that that law will be introduced tomorrow,” Conboy told the judge. 

Conboy also argued that Vincent’s term was not reset when her position was changed, which means that the original term was not technically abandoned.

“But she was removed as a full member, correct?” asked Judge Hartman. Conboy agreed.

On the absence of a public hearing, Conboy suggested that the public hearing may have occurred during a town board meeting.

“I don’t think there was a scheduled public hearing but I believe it may have been discussed at a town board meeting that I was not present for,” Conboy said.

 Jordan, Schimmer, and Willsey all said after the hearing that they did not recall any discussion of Vincent’s performance on the planning board. Altogether, their tenures on the board span from 2012 to the present. 

“There certainly was no discussion that I was ever a part of,” Willsey said. 

Councilman Palow and Bashwinger had raised objections to Vincent serving on the planning board in 2018, after she installed a temporary greenhouse on her property, which they claimed was illegal without a permit, but is actually allowed by state code.

Town Supervisor Sean Lyons did not immediately respond to a question from The Enterprise about when exactly or if that discussion took place. 

After the lawyers presented their brief arguments, Judge Hartman said she would offer a decision at a later date that has yet to be determined, but which will take place before the next planning board meeting. Planning board meetings are held on the first Thursday of each month, though meetings can be added as needed.

Vincent told The Enterprise she was feeling positive after the hearing. “He called for oral arguments so the judge could see that the town has no case," she said of her lawyer, Luibrand.

“No surprises in the oral arguments made today,” Conboy told The Enterprise over email after the hearing. “Both sides’ arguments were in alignment with the papers filed.”

More Hilltowns News

  • Todd Schwendeman

    Todd Schwendeman announced his resignation from the Berne Planning Board, offering the town board a way to appoint convicted felon Tom Spargo back to the board after his short, illegal tenure. 

  • Vandalism was discovered in Westerlo’s town park this week, with graffiti artwork and crude phrases scrawled around the pavilion. 

  • Todd Gallup, of Berne, pours slop for his pigs.

    Stephen Hadcock, Beginning Farmer Educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension, told The Enterprise that, over the last decade or longer, he’s seen an increase in the number of people who have taken steps to start their own farm. The Enterprise spoke with Hadcock and new Berne farmer Todd Gallup for insight into the process of starting a farm from scratch. 

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.