Berne likely to forego remote public hearings after mess of a meeting

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

A zoombomber sits and watches the April 29 Berne public hearing. ​

BERNE — Tensions ran high at the April 29 public hearing for Berne’s controversial law to expand the planning board from five members to seven as residents pilloried the town board for going out of its way to install former State Supreme Court judge and convicted felon Thomas Spargo as planning board chairman.

This, along with technical difficulties — like overheard domestic quarrels and a “zoombomb” — caused town attorney Javid Afzali to question whether the hearing “devolved” to the point of being unproductive. Supervisor Sean Lyons told The Enterprise that, as a result, there will likely be no further public hearings until meetings can resume in-person.

However, Lyons said that he and the other Republican-backed board members have privately heard support for both the bill and Spargo, and he does not plan to make any revisions before it goes to vote.

Since March, when gatherings of more than 10 people were banned in New York, the Berne Town Board has held three remote meetings, each about as long as its in-person meetings; other towns, like Knox, have been more conservative in setting their agendas since fewer residents are able to participate. Large swaths of the Hilltowns don’t have internet access.

The April 29 hearing — held in reference to Local Law 4, which would expand the town planning board from five members to seven — was designed to allow residents to address the town board and offer their perspective on that bill, which has been deeply controversial.

But as residents tried to voice their concerns, they often experienced severe disruption.

At times, the microphones of speakers were muted while, at other times, people not designated to speak generated significant noise from televisions and personal conversations that interrupted the hearing, including a woman who was shouting obscenities at her housemate, apparently unaware that she was audible to the meeting’s 25-plus participants. 

After resident and former board member Karen Schimmer said at the end of a statement that she would submit a written version to Town Clerk Anita Clayton due to the “verbal interference” of the swearing woman, Councilman Joel Willsey, who was opposed to holding the public hearing remotely in the first place, asked that the interruption be transcribed verbatim.

“That was so distracting that I could barely follow what she was saying,” Willsey said. 

“It was almost impossible for me to do it because it was distracting me,” Schimmer agreed. “This is a very poor way to conduct a public hearing, especially one that is unnecessary.” 

When planning board member Mark Sengenberger attempted to speak, he appeared to lose connection and did not seem to return until much later in the meeting, at which point he was given another opportunity to speak. 

Ultimately, the town board decided to leave the public hearing open and scheduled the next hearing for May 13, with the hope that social restrictions will have eased. 

“For public hearings,” Lyons told The Enterprise in an email, “unless we can find a better platform to allow easier access, better security and one-at-a-time speaking I do not think this is a reasonable way to conduct complex town business such as Public Hearings.”

“I am sure we all learned a lot at this public hearing about the pitfalls of remote public hearings,” Lyons continued. “I hope we would not attempt this again for public hearings until we can assure ease of public comment.” 

 

Zoombomb 

At one point in the meeting, messages in Spanish began popping up in Zoom’s chat-box feature. The first message, from a user named Ximena Ospina, read “gringos hijueputas,” or, “motherf-cking gringos,” according to Google Translate. 

Soon, the chat box was flooded with Spanish texts, apparently coming from a group of “zoombombers” who infiltrated the meeting and attempted to disrupt its procedure. However, by the time several presumably non-Berne residents had entered the meeting, all microphones were muted as the town board had entered into executive session. The pranksters left before the board returned to public session. 

There have been reports across the country of tele-meetings being crashed by unwelcome guests who, in some cases, go so far as to exhibit pornographic imagery to unwitting observers. 

Anyone could have accessed the Berne public hearing through Zoom, but entry required a code that had been posted on the town’s website in the clerk’s announcement of the hearing.

In the chat — though it was unclear whether he was addressing the zoombombers or Berne residents who otherwise did not engage in the chat box — planning board member Lawrence Zimmerman wrote in capital letters: Hi folks — all these statements should be submitted to The Altamont Enterprise as letters to the editor.

The executive order that allows public meetings to be held remotely dictates that the video or audio feeds used to communicate be transcribed verbatim and made available to the public. 

Afzali told The Enterprise that the chat messages — those from the zoombombers as well as from Zimmerman and resident Barbara Crosier, who used the chat to alert people to the infiltration — will be excluded from the record.

“I was not aware of what happened or zoom bombing until the next day,” Lyons told The Enterprise on Friday, “as I stated … we must work on [a] better platform to continue this way.” 

 

Residents outraged

Despite the difficulties of the meeting, many residents had the opportunity to air their grievances about the proposed law, with all the furor that has come to define Berne meetings since Jan. 1, when the board had a majority of members backed by the GOP for the first time in decades.

Residents, including three members of the current planning board — Mark Sengenberger, Lawrence Zimmerman, and Todd Schwendeman — accused the board of unnecessarily adding members to the board in what many claim is a plan to install Spargo in office after the state’s Supreme Court ruled that his initial appointment on Jan. 1 this year was indirectly illegal. 

On Jan. 1, 2020, the Berne Town Board — with GOP-backed council people Bonnie Conklin and Mathew Harris newly elected, giving the board a 4-1 Republican majority — voted to remove Berne farmer Emily Vincent from the town planning board in the middle of her term and place her in an alternate position instead, with limited voting power. 

This change allowed Spargo to be appointed; additionally, despite no planning board experience, he was named the board’s chairman, against the recommendation of the planning board members, who had unanimously requested that Schwendeman continue as chairman.

Vincent filed an Article 78 proceeding against the town, and on March 13, State Supreme Court Justice Denise A. Hartman ruled that the town board acted illegally and reversed its removal of Vincent and appointment of Spargo. 

 After the court ruling that Vincent was to be reinstated, the Berne Town Board proposed making its planning board, which had always had five members, into a seven-member board. New York State Town Law allows municipalities to have planning boards with either five or seven members.

Critics at the hearing suggested that, by adding members, and therefore salaries, the town board was ignoring its own financial precarity in the midst of a global economic tailspin; that the town board was misrepresenting the utility of a seven-member planning board; that the town board was failing to take seriously the concerns of residents; and that the town board was disrespecting the work of the present five-member board by suggesting the change without providing reasoning that satisfied the residents. 

In total, at least 10 residents voiced strong opposition to the bill. Willsey, the board’s only Democrat, also criticized the bill. No resident spoke out in support, except for councilman Dennis Palow, who incorrectly added that, because the planning board uses alternate members already, in addition to full members, there would be no increase in salaries.

“Right now,” Palow said, “we have five planning board members, as a local law, and there’s another local law that was passed … by the previous board members for two alternate members. Which that equals seven, the last time I did math.”

 In his initial email to The Enterprise, Lyons repeated the claim that there are seven members. 

However, the 2020 final budget designates only six positions for the planning board. The chairman is paid $2,179 annually. The four full members of the board and the single alternate are paid $1,750 annually. 

Following the discovery, Lyons confirmed to The Enterprise that the new law would result in an added expense of one member and apologized “for the confusion with my mistake.”

“And during the 2020 budget,” Palow continued during the hearing, “the previous board also asked for the alternate positions for the planning board to get paid, so technically right now, from the previous board members, there are seven board members and the alternates are authorized to get paid.” 

“With seven members you are going to have to have alternates,” responded Schimmer, who was on the town board that authorized the alternate positions and their compensation, “so either way you are adding to the expense of the town.”

Willsey added that the budget was designed to include the alternates’ compensation but that, because the town board has not yet voted to authorize those payments this year, none of that money has yet been used, which Lyons confirmed in the meeting.

Although the Berne website’s planning board page still listed Emily Vincent as an alternate and Thomas Spargo as chairman as of April 30, long after the court reversed that decision, the Berne Planning Board has no alternates at this time. 

The listing is now correct, without Spargo’s name and without a designated chair.

“This obviously was an oversight,” Clayton, the town clerk, told The Enterprise in an email. “Dealing with working through difficult times with this pandemic and trying to make sure I help the residents with their needs first, and constantly updating the website with Covid information and State of Emergency declarations, this obviously was a matter I hadn’t had a chance to address.”

“I will say Berne is in great shape fiscally,” Lyons told The Enterprise in his email, adding that he intends to write a letter to the Enterprise editor to address residents’ criticisms, “and we are well prepared to absorb any shortfalls predicted from the covid-19 pandemic WITHOUT increasing taxes.

“I will be bold and say taxes in Berne will continue to flat line,” Lyons continued, “and the potential still exists for tax decrease in 2021.”

Berne’s current tax rate per thousand dollars of assessed value is $4.167.

Despite the heavy criticism from residents and absent any supporters of the bill — except for Spargo, who submitted correspondence to the town but did not participate in the meeting — Lyons said that he does not anticipate revisions to the bill “at this time.”

Lyons said that “many residents” had talked to him, Palow, Conklin and Councilman Mathew Harris, and were “very much in support” of the bill and the reasons for the expansions outlined by Harris in a letter to the Altamont Enterprise editor.

“Many more have also spoke in favor of Mr. Spargo. I feel confident we are supported by a bigger sampling of our residents than the same few who now come out in opposition to the current board’s plans and support of Mr Willsey,” Lyons wrote.

“The Chairman has no more power over the other members,” Lyons said, “and as I said many times Mr. Spargo has paid his debt, reformed and is [a] trusted friend.”

 

Meeting devolves

Much of the criticism from residents was based on a fervent distrust of Spargo, whose 2009 conviction of bribery and extortion resulted in a 27-month federal prison sentence. This, in addition to frustrations about the technical obstacles, prompted Afzali, who was serving as the de facto moderator of the hearing, to request at different points that residents stay focused on the bill itself, which does not name Spargo in any way.

“What does Mr. Spargo bring to the table?” asked former supervisor Kevin Crosier, a Democrat, during the hearing. “He’s not a planning expert. He was an election law lawyer. Went on to become a Supreme Court judge, was disbarred and spent two years in federal prison because he was —”

At that point, it appeared that Afzali muted Crosier.

“Mr. Crosier,” Afzali interjected, “I would ask that you limit your comments to the local law and the passage. This has nothing to do with who the vacancy may fill.”

“Wait a minute, you’re not the town supervisor, number one” Crosier argued. “You’re the town attorney. Number two, you can’t tell me what I can and can’t talk about.”

“I can,” Afzali replied calmly. 

“No you can’t,” Crosier said. “I have the right to say whatever I want at a public hearing.” 

Crosier continued to admonish the board for considering Spargo, stopping only when he noticed Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin roll her eyes.

“I’m sorry; roll your eyes, Bonnie,” Crosier said loudly. “I’ve been watching you the whole time. You’re a disgrace.”

“You are disgusting,” Conklin lashed out. “You are a disgusting ex-supervisor. End of story. I’ve been in those executive sessions. You’re disgusting.” 

Conklin resigned as a town board member in 2013, two years into a four-year term, while Crosier was supervisor. She attributed the resignation to being outnumbered as a Republican on a board that was mostly Democrats.

“Oh sure,” Crosier began to reply, but his audio was cut off and Afzali interjected. 

“I’ve now muted everybody,” Afzali said. “This public hearing is devolving into just public disparagement rather than the hearing.”

Afzali then asked that Lyons decide whether the hearing would continue, and Lyons suggested that it resume when circumstances are more agreeable. 

“I have to agree with most everybody,” Lyons said. “This is very hard to follow and I’m not comfortable that everybody is not getting an opportunity to speak.”

After the meeting, Conklin declined to provide comment to The Enterprise about her interaction with Crosier, citing “our town policy.”

On Jan. 1, the Berne Town Board adopted policies that limited the amount of information officials can share with the public; however, the one that would most closely apply to Conklin’s interaction with Crosier only prevents officials from discussing town business.

When asked what town policy she was referring to, Conklin again declined to comment. 

“Council member Conklin’s response was heated after Mr. Crosier referred to her as always being a disgrace and pathetic. (or very close to that),” Lyons told The Enterprise of the dramatic exchange. 

Conklin has, in past meetings, rolled her eyes in response to critical residents

“Any personal heated interactions are not productive to doing the work of the town,” Lyons continued, “either from an elected official, former elected official, or resident.” 

When asked if he believes board members are held to the same standards of conduct or higher than that asked of residents, Lyons said he believes they are. 

“I do not think many of the commenters were fair and respectful to the Town Board or the Public Hearing’s business at hand,” Lyons said, “using the public hearing platform to attack the town board members and other business irrelevant at the hearing.

Lyons told The Enterprise that he is preparing a letter to the Enterprise editor to directly respond to criticisms “towards Me and my work as Supervisor, the outrageous claims of our town’s financial situation and claims of skyrocketing taxes.”

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