Former deputy clerk alleges she was fired over Dem affiliation

BERNE — Berne Town Clerk Anita Clayton has fired her deputy, Jean Guarino. Guarino believes it is because she was endorsed by town Democrats to run for clerk in November.

Clayton, a Democrat, has been town clerk since 2013. Her term will end on Dec. 31 of this year, and she had told The Enterprise that she is not seeking re-election.

Clayton had written a letter to the Enterprise editor in February blasting the Berne Democratic Committee for a “demeaning” interview held last month as it explored candidates for this year’s elections.

Clayton’s name now appears in court papers involving a lawsuit over the Working Families Party line, indicating she is a candidate for public office in Berne.

This week, Guarino wrote the Enterprise editor, giving her views on being fired.

After being sent questions by email along with a copy of Guarino’s letter on Tuesday evening, Clayton, who works for the town full-time, told The Enterprise that she would respond to the allegations but did not produce anything in time for print the next day.

Supervisor Sean Lyons did not respond to Enterprise questions.

In her letter, Guarino writes that she had enjoyed working in the position since Clayton persuaded her to take the job last year; there was supposedly  an understanding, then, that Guarino was essentially training to be Clayton’s replacement, since Clayton reportedly anticipated that she would either resign from the position in 2022 or not seek re-election this year.  

Guarino told The Enterprise this week that she felt she and her boss were friends, up until Clayton accused Guarino of leaking town information earlier this year, at which point Guarino had keys and log-in information taken away from her. 

Guarino said that Clayton suspected she had spread word that the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau report regarding the death of town highway worker Peter Becker, who was killed on the job at the transfer station last year, had been released.

The report, which is a public document and was required to be posted at the town highway garage, found seven serious safety violations connected to Becker’s death, some of which were administrative in nature. The town’s highway superintendent, Randy Bashwinger, was instrumental as former chairman of the Berne Republican Party in bringing the town board — and, by extension, the town — under GOP control in the 2019 elections.

Clayton, although a Democrat, has become a de facto ally of the Republican-backed board members and a critic of the Berne Democratic Party, which she accused of pressuring her to condemn her GOP colleagues during a candidate interview this year.

Guarino, who denied leaking information from or about the public document, said that she was opening mail addressed to the town as part of her responsibilities when she opened an envelope containing the PESH report, at which point she called Clayton to ask what to do with the report and was told to “lock it in a drawer.”

“And, somehow, there was an article about it written a couple days later,” Guarino said, referencing an Enterprise story. “And [Clayton] said ‘Well, I didn’t tell anybody, so you must have.’ But I didn’t tell anybody. Even though it’s public information, I still didn’t tell anybody. That was her basis to start treating me differently.” 

The Enterprise, at the time of Becker’s death, had submitted a Freedom of Information Law request to obtain any reports on investigations pertaining to his death and did not learn of the report from Guarino.

Guarino said that, prior to the accusation, she had the same access and responsibilities as Clayton, with the exception of human resources materials, because she didn’t have HR authorization. After the accusation, however, “everything was stripped little by little,” she said.

“Some of the [changes] were common sense, like that we should have our own log-ins to different things,” Guarino explained. “I had said to her all along that we should have that because it protects everybody. But she didn’t give me the new log-in information. She just said, ‘You don’t need to do those things anymore.’ .... I wasn’t even allowed to give a transfer permit. I mean, come on. What am I going to do, give someone a dump permit? 

“It was getting absolutely ridiculous. I wasn’t allowed to put on the calendar what days I was taking off because the calendar was no longer available, because she was afraid I was going to tell people what days she had off. It was getting utterly ridiculous.”

The biggest change, though, came when Clayton learned that Guarino had secured the Democratic endorsement for her run as town clerk.

“I hadn’t told her right away that I had gotten it because they hadn’t announced their slate, yet, and they asked me to keep it under wraps,” Guarino said. “But it’s a small town and things leak; everybody talks to everybody. So she kept confronting me about it and, as soon she found out I was going to take the endorsement, that’s when things really, really changed. It was night and day.”

On the nature of the shift, Guarino said, “There was just that feeling you get, when you walk into the office and nobody says anything, so I just kept taking that in every day. Once, I called [Clayton] at home and said, ‘I don’t like the atmosphere.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m under a lot of stress ... so you’ve just got to give me some space.’

“So it was fine for a couple days and then, once again, the tension came back. Every time she had a conversation, she’d go behind a closed door. I don’t know what happened.” 

Soon, Guarino was fired, handed a notice of termination that didn’t offer any justification, she said.

“Technically, she doesn’t need one,” Guarino explained.

If it’s true that Guarino was fired without justification beyond unverified allegations around “leaking” public documents and her affiliation with local Democrats, who are staging an assault on four open town board seats this November, in addition to other town positions, she’s one in a long line of people removed from their position without explanation and — so far as has been revealed — without a performance-related reason. 

After Republican-backed board members Bonnie Conklin and Mathew Harris were sworn in on Jan. 1, 2020, the Berne Town Board illegally demoted planning board member Emily Vincent, who had Civil Service protection, resulting in a lawsuit that reversed the action later that year; illegally replaced dog-control officer Cheryl Baitsholts, who also had Civil Service protection, but did not bring the matter to court; and chose not to reappoint Youth Council member Tim Doherty, who did not have civil service protection but nevertheless described being shocked by the decision.


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