Berne board divided over town appointments

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger leads the charge on the Berne Town Hall during a protest two years ago after two of his workers were laid off by then-supervisor Kevin Crosier.

BERNE — At its March 14 meeting, Berne’s town board was divided on appointments, showing a deep fault line between the board’s two Republican members and its three Democratic members.

Political fighting was further revealed through a series of emails Republican Councilman Dennis Palow shared with The Enterprise on Monday.

Philip Stevens, who ran in 2013 on the GOP ticket for town board and was the former town Republican committee chairman, was a candidate for the Board of Assessment Review.

Councilwoman Dawn Jordan, a Democrat, said she was concerned that he would be away for too much of the year to adequately represent the town. Councilwoman Karen Schimmer, another Democrat, added that she would like to see someone from East Berne on the board in order to provide better representation. Stevens lives in the hamlet of Berne.

Town Clerk Anita Clayton, also a Democrat, cautioned that Stevens would need to complete training on April 12 to be ready for Grievance Day on the fourth Tuesday in May when residents across the state can challenge their property assessments. The board agreed to table the matter until the next meeting on April 11 or at a prior meeting with further information provided by Clayton.

The board also discussed appointing Randy Bashwinger, the Republican Party chairman and also Berne’s highway superintendent, to the Youth Council. Palow said that Bashwinger had been attending council meetings, and that he and newly appointed Youth Council Chairwoman Jean Guarino appreciate what he does for the town.

Supervisor Sean Lyons, also a Republican, noted that Bashwinger had recently applied for a part-time position with the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District; Bashwinger would be checking in parents and visitors at the elementary school at the end of the school day when they arrive to pick up their kids.

Bashwinger told The Enterprise on Wednesday he had applied for the position at BKW and underwent a background check there. He accepted a job offer but this offer must still be approved by the district’s school board.

Schimmer said that “if only as a cursory,” the town should check all applicants who work with children — having them submit to a background check and asking for an updated résumé — including Bashwinger. She shared an anecdote about a co-worker who mentored children and was found to have “evidence on his computer” and “what he was doing was inappropriate.”

“I think it’s something that we should look at and continue,” she said, adding that this should be done in the search for the Youth Council Director as well.

“I kind of took offense to that,” said Bashwinger, of Schimmer’s anecdote. The highway superintendent told The Enterprise on Wednesday that he did not care if he underwent a background check but said that “the timing of this is kind of strange”; he called it “an excuse to play their political games.”

Guarino asked about the cost of this, as well as whether it would slow the progression of adding new members.

“I know we have another member who isn’t on the agenda, because what you were asking from her was twice as much as what you had previously asked from me,” Guarino said. Clayton responded that she had asked only for references.

Palow later told The Enterprise that a woman had applied for a position on the council but didn’t have any work with children listed on her résumé. He said that he believed Guarino and Lisa Raymond had been appointed with less scrutiny and no calls for background checks.

Guarino also asked at the meeting if this would affect parents serving as chaperones.

“Where is it going to stop?” she asked. Schimmer said that this would be what the board would be looking into. Guarano said that, while the town board discusses the matter, the council would be down to four members and needs at least two to hold events for children.

The board agreed both to table Bashwinger’s appointment and to advertise for a replacement for the former director, Katherine Wank.

Wank told The Enterprise on Friday that she had resigned because she had been holding four part-time jobs and wanted more time to spend with her family as her children grew older.

“I’m just trying to lighten my load … ,” she said.

Wank, a Rensselaerville resident, is also one of Rensselaerville’s assessors and the deputy town clerk. She said that she chose to leave the position in Berne because she is not a resident there.

Wank said that there were several new people on the Youth Council with a renewed interest and that she thinks it is headed in the right direction.

Guarino was appointed at last month’s town board meeting as both a new youth council member and as its chairwoman. At this month’s town board meeting, she listed events planned by the youth council in the coming spring and summer, including a Mother’s Day paint-and-sip session and a camping trip. She and Palow also discussed seeking donations to help pay for Knox children to attend the summer recreation program; the Berne town board has debated in the past whether to charge Knox or Knox residents for having children from there attend.

Email discussion

Bashwinger’s appointment was discussed in a string of emails that Palow shared with The Enterprise, in which Palow defended Bashwinger’s appointment after Jordan said she could not support it.

The councilwoman explained further by attaching a screenshot of Bashwinger’s Facebook profile which includes the phrase “ … treat me like shit and see what happens … .” Schimmer and the third Democratic councilmember, Joel Willsey, agreed with Jordan; Schimmer wrote that she was concerned with Bashwinger’s offensive language as well as what she described as retribution towards residents who question him.

“I simply don’t know how Randy will respond in difficult situations where he may feel his authority is questioned or he feels threatened … ,” she wrote.

Schimmer added that she would prefer a discussion of candidates before interviews.

Willsey wrote that Bashwinger considers criticism “a personal attack,” and does not tell the truth in social media.

“I feel he should not be put in a situation where he can influence the youth in the name of the Town,” he wrote.

Willsey confirmed that he had written that in the email. He also said that this is not the first time that Palow has shared town board emails, noting that Palow had shared discussions about Bradt Hollow Road with Bashwinger. Palow said that he was upset that the town wanted to go to an engineer for advice on fixing problems with Bradt Hollow Road instead of to Bashwinger.

Willsey also said that he had been investigated twice at his workplace at the state’s Department of Transportation for violating the Hatch Act and that the investigations lasted months. Willsey said he suspects Republican involvement. Bashwinger confirmed that Stevens, the former GOP chair, lodged the complaint. Willsey said the investigations found no merit to claims that he had been running his campaign for town council from his workplace.

A letter from Kelley E. Nobriga, an attorney from the Hatch Act Unit of the United States Office of Special Counsel, dated Dec. 17, 2017, states that the file concerning the allegation Willsey was violating the Hatch Act by being a candidate for Berne councilman while employed by the state’s Department of Transportation was being closed without further action. Nobriga writes that, since Willsey’s salary was not entirely federally funded, the Hatch Act did not prohibit him from being a candidate for partisan political office.

Palow claims that the emails show that the Democratic town board members “have personal issues against Randy Bashwinger” because, he says, they write what they would not say to “Randy’s face.”

Schimmer and Jordan had both written in their emails to not share the information with Bashwinger. Schimmer did not return calls for comment before press time; Jordan declined to comment, stating that the emails are potentially a personnel issue and should not have been shared.

Bashwinger said that the phrase  “ … treat me like shit and see what happens” was on his personal profile in 2015 and was in reference to a custody battle, not politics. He said he later changed it to say, “Treat me with respect and you will be treated that way. If you don’t then you get what you get.” He added that he “knows when to discuss things and when not to discuss things,” when it comes to dealing with the public.

Bashwinger said that Schimmer’s and Willsey’s comments were referencing his and Willsey’s conflict over Stage Road, which Willsey had argued, before he was elected to office, that Bashwinger should not have closed down. (See Willsely’s letter to the editor.) He again described the protests as politically-motivated, and said that he’d be “after them” in two years to have them voted out in the next election.

Open meetings law

Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, has issued several advisory opinions that state that a series of communications by individual board members or telephone calls among the members which result in a collective decision, a meeting or vote held by means of a telephone conference, by mail or email would be inconsistent with the Open Meetings Law.

He cites the law’s legislative declaration: “It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this sate be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.”

If public business is conducted by email, phone, or mail, the intent of letting the public observe deliberations cannot be realized, Freeman writes.

Open your wallets!

Breaking some of the tension from the remarks made at the beginning of the March 14 meeting, Knox resident Kiernan Hanley presented his proposed Eagle Scout project to build a shelf-and-cabinet unit at the Berne Public Library.

Hanley said that it would cost him $1,440.37 in materials for the shelf but that it was down to about $1,000 with a donation from GNH Lumber and a $100 donation from Knox.

The Berne Town Board later voted to reimburse Hanley for $500 upon completion of the project, but residents in the gallery had already begun writing checks or giving the Boy Scout information so that they would later be contacted to send money. Hanley also asked for an email or mailing address to later send a thank-you letter.

Other business

In addition, the board also:

— Approved the highway department’s purchase of devices with GPS-enabled tracking, diagnostic reading, which also allow free four tow calls per truck up to $3,500, as well as to retire a truck and put it out to bid;

— Amended an agreement with Roger Chrysler to farm hayfields at Switzkill Farm from one year to five years;

— Adopted a proclamation honoring Judy Petrosillo, who retired from her position as Berne Public Library manager this month;

— Reviewed a presentation of the Berne Public Library’s annual report by Sandra Stempel, the newly appointed library manager, and Marianne Burkhart, the president of the Library’s board of trustees;

— Authorized Clayton to make purchases with the town Visa card online or in-store. The proposal had been to make purchases online through Amazon. Chris Smith, the owner of the restaurant Maple on the Lake, objected due to recent concerns over losing local sales tax revenue to online purchases. Clayton said local purchases can be more expensive and involve her traveling out of town; and

— Heard from Michelle Viola-Straight of the Hometown Heroes program in Guilderland, which creates banners of local veterans to be displayed in town. The town board discussed announcing their participation in the program on April 28, when Guilderland’s project will reveal several of the banners in Tawasentha Park.


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