Berne Town Board considers farmers’ market to support community

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin sits at the dais in the Berne Town Hall on Jan. 1, during the town's annual reorganizational meeting. Conklin, backed by the local GOP,  was elected last November alongside Mathew Harris, also a GOP-backed candidate, making the Berne Town Board majority-red for the first time in decades.

BERNE — While the lone Democrat on the town board said he supports Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin’s idea of starting a farmers’ market in town, Joel Willsey objected to Conklin’s posting a notice about it before the town board had discussed it.

Conklin declined to discuss the market with The Enterprise both before and after the April 22 town board meeting, held as a video conference.

“I do think it’s a good thing to do,” Willsey said of the farmers’ market at the meeting. “I think that it should be explored, but it should be explored before it’s announced as if there’s already a program in place.” 

Willsey often votes in opposition to the bloc of four GOP-backed board members; he has taken on a watchdog role since the formerly Democrat-dominated board became a GOP-majority board on Jan. 1, 2020.

After Willsey’s criticism interrupted Conklin’s introduction of the topic, Conklin defended her Facebook post by arguing that it was merely a way to gauge community interest; later in the meeting, she said that the post received an “overwhelming response.” Willsey countered that she had asked vendors to sign up, indicating that there was more certainty about the market than actually existed. 

Conklin’s Facebook post, dated the evening of April 18, was both an advertisement for the market — listing operating hours as identical to the hours of the town’s transfer station — and a call for interested vendors, whom Conklin said could reach out to her by phone or her town-board email. 

The language of the post regarding vendors is: “No charge for vendors…. just come and set up. Please contact Bonnie Conklin via email or call 518-903-0276.” 

“I think [putting] something out in the name of the town without the lawyer reviewing it first is bad practice,” Willsey added later in the meeting. “We don’t want it to look like we’ve worked hard to establish some sort of a program when we haven’t. I think it’s kind of misleading to people.” 

“No, it was just to get people’s public opinion about it,” Conklin said. 

After Willsey noted that there was no board discussion, Councilman Dennis Palow said that Conklin had discussed the idea with him prior to posting.

“Well, of course,” Willsey said. “But I think the town board should discuss things like this and I think our attorney should discuss things like this. This is how Mr. Conboy got in a mess because a lot of things were done that he was not aware of and he was not given the opportunity to review.”

William Conboy III, like his father before him, was Berne’s attorney. He resigned earlier this month, shortly after the New York State Supreme Court ruled that the town board’s decision to remove Emily Vincent as a full member of the planning board and reinstate her as an alternate member was illegal. Conboy denied to The Enterprise that his resignation was connected to that outcome and explained that he was looking to spend more time with his family. Conboy had declined to answer earlier Enterprise questions about the legality of appointments made by the Berne Town Board on Jan. 1.

Conklin eventually apologized during the meeting for posting ahead of time. 

“Yes, Joel, I agree,” she said. “I went about it the wrong way. I was impulsive about it like I am with the senior housing and the water … How about we just put this on hold for the next meeting?”


Markets during COVID

Although a farmers’ market seems like an obvious prohibition under the social distancing provisions put in place by the county, state, and federal governments, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets lays out the requirements a market can follow in order to be considered an “exempt operation.” 

Generally, there can be no forms of entertainment, according to the guidelines published on March 31, no cooking demonstrations or sampling, nor any non-food items sold with the exception of soap and hand sanitizer products. 

Vendors themselves are required to clean their tables as often and as thoroughly as possible and to prevent customers from lingering in their area for an excessive amount of time. 

“We had mentioned that with all the media talking about local farmers and needing support,” Conklin said after Willsey asked about the market’s relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, “so that was part of it … but it’s also part of the community not having to go shopping over in Cobleskill for the milk and the eggs and the veggies and things like that.”

Offering advice to Conklin, Willsey said: “It’s tough. These projects take forever. I was involved in several projects that took years and years and some of them we didn’t do after I put two years and three years of work into. So you [have to] do the work up front, and make sure we know what we’re talking about.” 

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