Berne Town Board censures Willsey for discrimination 

BERNE — The Berne Town Board has censured its lone Democrat, Joel Willsey, after Republican Supervisor Sean Lyons announced the conclusion of an investigation by a private law firm into Willsey’s discrimination against Republican board member Dennis Palow, a veteran.

The censure was accepted at the town board’s June 29 meeting by a vote of 4-0, with Willsey absent from the meeting.

The Enterprise has filed Freedom of Information Law requests for a copy of the resolution and for records of the cost of the current investigation as well as prior unfruitful investigations of Willsey. Neither has yet been forthcoming.

The board comprises Democrat Willsey, two Republicans — Lyons and Palow — along with Conservative Bonnie Conklin and Independent Mathew Harris. All besides Willsey’s campaigns had been backed by the town GOP, which secured a board majority for the first time in decades last November, after two Democrat board members chose not to seek re-election.

Tensions between Willsey and Republican-backed board members have been high since Willsey took office in 2017, and have only increased as those town board members have aggressively pursued personnel and policy changes — some illegal — with their new majority. Willsey claims he is often left out of town board correspondence.

However, Harris indicated a reluctance to accept the resolution. “Strenuously, aye,” he said as he cast his vote. When asked by The Enterprise in an email what he was trying to signal to the public through that statement, Harris responded, “I am considering your request.”

Palow’s charge stemmed primarily from Willsey’s insistence last August that town hall security be bolstered following a comment Palow made a month prior that Willsey said was intentionally threatening, and Willsey’s speculation in confidential emails between town officials and the town’s former attorney that Palow may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those security measures, which included a metal detector and a sheriff’s deputy stationed at the town hall during meetings, were pushed through by the Democrat majority last September and dismantled after Harris and Conklin were sworn into office in January. 

The investigation, conducted by Roemer Wallens & Mineaux, an Albany-based law firm that specializes in labor law, “concluded that Mr. Willsey’s suggestions are unsupported by any factual foundation. He has no knowledge of any PTSD diagnosis. He received no specific threat of violence from Mr. Palow,” Lyons said as he read the resolution aloud at the meeting.

The firm could not be reached for comment on how it reached its conclusions and the authority its conclusions hold.

Palow had filed his complaint on the basis that Willsey had violated the town’s employee handbook, which states that the town is an equal-opportunity employer but because Willsey is an elected official and not an employee, he is not under the purview of the handbook.

“I did not fully understand the boundaries of elected officials and employees when this investigation began. I felt elected officials should be as accountable as regular employees,” Lyons told The Enterprise in an email when asked if he had been aware at the start of the investigation that Willsey was not bound by the employee handbook.

When The Enterprise asked Town Clerk Anita Clayton for a copy of the resolution this week, Clayton responded that she would share it digitally on July 6. When asked why there would be a delay, Clayton said she was “working on processing everything from the meeting.”

Clayton then emailed The Enterprise and asked that the newspaper submit a Freedom of Information Law request for the document. Upon receipt of the request, Clayton responded that the document would be shared by July 9.

The same day, July 1, Clayton emailed the resolution to Willsey, who told The Enterprise that it was only shared with him after he requested it. 

After the resolution was read aloud at the meeting, Palow requested that an incident report he filed with the sheriff’s office be added to it.

Police incident reports do not determine whether or not a crime occurred, Patrol Station Commander J.T. Campbell of the Albany County Sheriff’s Office told The Enterprise. He also said that reports are not necessarily corroborated by other parties.

“It’s basically just a document that documents an alleged incident,” Campbell said. “Could be a crime, or not. Just because an incident report is filed doesn’t mean that a crime took place.” 

Palow declined to comment on his report for The Enterprise, instead raising criticism of the paper’s coverage of him.  

“The problem is everytime the [Altamont Enterprise] writes a story about me you put false information in the article,” Palow wrote in an email. “So if you write an article about the resolution and what i turned in please dont put that i didnt cooperate make sure you put that the AE writes false articles about veterans and myself. I have no further comments.”

When The Enterprise replied that all errors made in reporting are publicly corrected, Palow explained, without offering specifics, that his issues lay primarily in letters to the editor written by Willsey that were published in the paper’s Opinion section.

Letters to the Enterprise editor are reviewed before publication for information that’s determinably false, but are not treated for opinionated content. In publishing Willsey’s letters, The Enterprise relied on documents shared by Willsey as well as audio/video recordings to verify quotes.

“The AE alzo published articles accusing me of threatening Joel which is not true,” Palow wrote. “After you read the results from the investigation you will see i was not guilty of anything and Joel was guilty of everything.”

The Enterprise has never written in a news article that Palow threatened Willsey, but that Willsey has claimed that Palow has acted threateningly toward him. 

 

Background 

The sequence of events investigated by the law firm began at a board meeting last July, where Palow told Willsey, “If you keep talking crap about me, Joel, I’ve got something for you.” Palow had been addressing letters written by Willsey to the Enterprise editor that were critical of Palow. Willsey considered the statement a threat.

After that meeting, Willsey emailed Lyons and then-town attorney William Conboy III — with then-board members, Democrats Karen Schimmer and Dawn Jordan carbon-copied — to express concerns about Palow’s behavior; the subject line of the email included the word “confidential” in capital letters.

“I am writing to inform you that, based on Mr Palow’s most recent threat, I am not comfortable with the security of the August 14 Town Board meeting,” Willsey wrote, “and I am requesting extraordinary security measures be taken. If these requests are not adequately addressed I may consider the meeting too dangerous to attend. I cannot speak for Dawn and Karen, but they have both expressed similar concerns to me for similar reasons so I have copied them so they can weigh in.”

Later in that email, Willsey wrote of Palow, “I say this because I believe he is unstable and has anger management issues. The attached recording of the July meeting clearly illustrates instability and wildly inappropriate behavior, including threats in our public meeting; this is my opinion.”

A subsequent email from Willsey addressed to Lyons and Conboy expressed that he was “very concerned about the potential for a PTSD situation.” 

The speculative content of Willsey’s confidential emails were made public by local conservative talk-show host Melody Burns, with whom Lyons had shared the emails. 

Burns wrote on Facebook that the Democratic board members were “attacking” Palow by suggesting that “because he is a combat vet, he is a mass killer. By saying this the Town Board Members are labeling all Combat Veterans as being damaged and killers.”   

That misinformation likely played a role in drawing a massive crowd of about 50, many from out of town, to support Palow during the Aug. 28 board meeting, where Palow read excerpts of Willsey’s emails to jeers.

Palow told the crowd that the Democratic board members, who were not in attendance, were “labeling me a mass shooter,” which they have denied and is not supported by any recordings or documents.

 

Harassment campaign

The discrimination charge is the first against Willsey that’s stuck after years of what Willsey describes as a campaign of harassment by the GOP, which have levied against him various allegations of misconduct, including sexual harassment.

The sexual harassment allegation came from an email exchange between town officials last year in which Willsey wrote that campaign signs were “erected.”

Palow wrote to Willsey that he found the email “very disturbing and unprofessional.” Palow also emailed Conboy to ask if there was “something we can do about these words,” referencing Willsey’s email.

“The G.O.P. -approved Berne Town Board members,” Willsey wrote in a statement to The Enterprise that is being published in its entirety as a letter to the editor at his request, “have threatened me with censure and removal from office in ‘executive session’ in their continuing campaign of harassment to drive me from office that began in August 2017 when they initiated state and federal investigations of my alleged misconduct. 

“Those investigations,” Willsey continued, “were also based on false allegations and were determined to be without merit. All the investigations since are an incredible waste of tax dollars. Tens of thousands in tax dollars are being used to harass and intimidate me while a faded and tattered flag flies over a World War II veterans’ monument that is falling down in the town park.”

When asked about the expense of investigations into Willsey, Lyons told The Enterprise that the information should be requested via FOIL under the advice of town attorney Javid Afzali. When this request was submitted, Clerk Clayton told The Enterprise that she would reply by July 30. 

When asked if he felt that unknown total cost was justified, Lyons wrote in an email that it was his duty as supervisor to pursue complaints. 

“It is the Town of Berne’s policy to take all complaints and investigate them promptly and discreetly,” Lyons wrote. “It is the Town Supervisors responsibility to appoint an impartial independent investigator to confidentially investigate all complaints received. It is not my position to determine if the complaints are valid or if any expense of the investigation is justified by an outcome?”

More Hilltowns News

  • Berne’s town attorney Javid Afzali informed the town board at its July 22 meeting that the controversial Switzkill Farm property may have been acquired illegally because the 2014 town board did not allow for a permissive referendum following the purchase authorization. Then-supervisor Kevin Crosier tells The Enterprise that no referendum was required.

  • The Berne Town Board has spent more than $15,000 on investigations according to documents received by The Enterprise through a Freedom of Information Law request. All the investigations appear to have been of Democratic town board members. One recently led to a censure by partisan vote; the others were unsubstantiated.

  • A Black Lives Matter rally planned by Berne resident Laurie Searl has drawn strong criticism on Facebook, leaving some would-be attendants worried about a counter-protest that could turn violent, as has happened both locally and across the country.

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.