Convicted felons and thuggish behavior? Is that the new initiative?

To the Editor:

The  June 24, 2020 Berne Town Board meeting marked the six-month anniversary of the present administration’s assumption of the Berne Town Board majority rule. The meeting was held at the town park pavilion during a rain storm and using a public address system that was probably invented in the Hoover administration. Not conducive to a reasoned discussion — and none was had. The meeting was a study in contrasts.

During the “community comment” segment of the meeting, the board was informed that a citizens’ committee had been formed to redesign and rebuild a veterans’ memorial at the town park to include all the town’s veterans throughout our history. The lynchpin for organizing this effort was town board member Joel Willsey whose family’s record of service to the country dates back to the Revolutionary War. The board sat mute; nary a comment.

The next citizen to speak at “community comment” was Sue Hawkes-Teeter, a volunteer member of the Berne Conservation Board. You will recall that in January the present town board told the conservation board to stop meeting pending an “audit.” 

The conservation board is hardly a hotbed of controversy nor is it accused of profligate spending. All its members are volunteers. The conservation board is a necessary adjunct to the planning board, offering expert advice to keep our environment clean and beautiful.

Ms. Hawkes-Teeter simply asked, “When will the ‘audit’ be done?”

At first, Mr. [Supervisor Sean] Lyons seemed to have forgotten that an “audit” was supposed to be conducted, but righted the ship by intoning that “community comment” was not a time to ask questions!  No further discussion nor the simple courtesy of an answer. (Yo — these folks are volunteers!)

Finally, in a bravura display of offended dignity with much harrumphing, the board’s four Republican-backed members voted to censure town board member Mr. Willsey (a Democrat) for allegedly “discriminating” against Deputy Town Supervisor Dennis Palow because of his status as a veteran. Mr. Willsey did not attend the meeting.

The assertion that Mr. Willsey “ discriminated “ against Mr. Palow would be laughable on its face were it not for the following:

The present majority of Republican-backed members of the town board are engaged in an intentional conspiracy to intimidate and harass elected and appointed officials whose sole demerit seems to be their membership in a different party.

They have insulted and humiliated volunteer members of the community who have given of their time to the community by serving on the Switzkill Farm Board, the Berne Youth Council and the Berne Conservation Board.

Witness the following:

— Emily Vincent, a planning board member was harassed and investigated on a bogus claim that she was running an illegal bed-and-breakfast facility on her farm. The claim was false and deemed meritless;

— Shortly thereafter, she was accused of having an illegal greenhouse on her farm. This bogus claim was found to be meritless and was based upon our erstwhile code-enforcement officer’s misinterpretation of Agriculture and Markets Law;

— Ms. Vincent was then illegally fired by the town board in January and forced to bring a lawsuit against the town. The court reinstated Ms. Vincent, and excoriated the town board for its attempt to create a vacancy on the planning board so that it could appoint former Judge [Thomas] Spargo (who was convicted in federal court of extortion and bribery, serving two years in federal prison) as chair of the planning board;

— Dawn Jordan, a Democrat, and former member of the town board was investigated by a law firm hired by the town board allegedly for “ misconduct.”  Her “misconduct” — having the temerity to vote against an 18-percent pay raise for Mr. [Randy] Bashwinger — the town Republican chairman. Months went by and only after Ms. Jordan retired from her town board seat did she receive a letter from Mr. Lyons informing her that she was no longer “considered a potential subject of discipline”;

— Karen Schimmer, a Democrat, and former member of the town board, had insisted that, if teenaged camping at Thompsons Lake were to take place, then the adult supervisors should be subject to a background check. For these alleged crimes she was informed that she was being “investigated.” Of course, nothing ever came of this “investigation”;

— Joel Willsey, a sitting Democratic member of the town board, was harassed and intimidated by the board and the highway supervisor before he was even elected to the board. Bogus allegations were mounted against him at his place of employment in an attempt to get him fired. The allegations were baseless but Mr. Willsey was forced to defend himself and nonetheless got elected to the board;

— Mr. Willsey has been subjected to multiple town board “executive sessions,” which were called for “personnel matters.” The sole matter discussed in these sessions was Mr. Willsey — who is an elected official of the town and not an employee.

Therefore, these “executive sessions” were illegal meetings and nothing more than an opportunity to harass Mr. Willsey and threaten him with criminal prosecution and actions to remove him from the board. This harassment was principally due to the delicate sensibilities of Mr. Palow and his status as a veteran. 

In grade school we used to call such maneuvers a “pile on!” Incredibly, the board spent thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to hire an attorney to conduct this bogus investigation — up to that point. If you read that attorney’s letter carefully, it could be better termed as a discussion in search of a topic;

— Perforce, the town board cited selected segments of this letter in search of a topic and chose to censure Mr. Willsey — a toothless gesture intended solely to intimidate and embarrass Mr. Willsey.

Finally, in the midst of an enveloping health crisis and an economic crisis that follows in its wake — the Berne Town Board has accomplished absolutely nothing of substance other than the above-referenced campaign of vindictiveness and the politics of resentment.

When a new administration comes into office, excitement is usually centered around the “first one-hundred days” where new initiatives are unfolded and new energy is pumped into the government.

Convicted felons and thuggish behavior? Is that the new initiative? Sadly, it is so. 

A confederacy of thugs — (with apologies to John Kennedy Toole).

Lawrence Zimmerman

East Berne

Editor’s note: Lawrence Zimmerman is a member of the Berne Planning Board.

More Letters to the Editor

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.