Berne town board votes to censure supervisor

Berne Supervisor Sean Lyons

Enterprise file photo — H. Rose Schneider

Berne Supervisor Sean Lyons reviews the 2019 preliminary budget last year. 

BERNE — At their July 10 meeting, Berne council members voted to censure Supervisor Sean Lyons for taking action without their knowledge, in one case — amending a contract with highway workers — illegally.

The vote was split along party lines with the three Democrats — Karen Schimmer, Dawn Jordan, and Joel Willsey — voting for the censure, and the two Republicans — Deputy Supervisor Dennis Palow and the supervisor himself — voting against it.

In an email to The Enterprise on Thursday, after this story was printed, Lyons wrote that he hoped the statements in the resolution would be “publicly proven false and the lasting impacts will be on those who published these lies and voted to approve them.”

The New York State Public Employees Fair Employment Act — also known as the Taylor Law — states that a contract between a public employer and a union will include a notice stating that any amendment or change in funds “shall not become effective until the appropriate legislative body has given approval.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Jordan, saying she wished she didn’t have to do this, began to read the censure aloud. The document states that Lyons — without town board knowledge or approval — approved changes to the town highway workers’ collective bargaining agreement, eliminated board liaison positions, changed the broker of record for the highway workers’ insurance, and attempted to eliminate a county-provided ambulance service.

Last month, the town board held lengthy closed-door discussions over amendments to the town highway workers union contract that were approved by the supervisor without town board knowledge or approval.

Lyons had told The Enterprise last month that Palow was part of the union negotiations with highway workers but he said in an email this week that, on reviewing his notes, he saw he was mistaken, that Palow was not part of the union discussions. “I must have confused meetings with the Sheriff’s office and our insurance broker,” Lyons wrote in an email to The Enterprise.

Lyons also told The Enterprise last month that he initially believed he could approve the contract amendments without a board vote since no town funds would be affected. Other board members argued that the changes, which include extending the period in which the workers operate under a four-day workweek, would affect the budget.

The union has now filed a grievance after it was resolved that the months-old changes would have to be approved by a board vote to take effect. The union representative could not be reached for comment by The Enterprise.

During the July board meeting, at the mention of the ambulance service, Lyons — who, while silent, was visibly angry during the reading — quietly exclaimed, “What?” He later told the board that had never intended to cancel ambulance services.

“I said pay the bill when it’s due,” he stated.

Last year, when preparing the 2019 town budget, Schimmer and Jordan said in a meeting that the funds set aside for emergency medical services in the preliminary budget would cover only the county paramedic and not the county ambulance service. Lyons, working on his first budget as supervisor, said at the time that he was not aware of the cost of the ambulance service.

“I don’t know how he could not have been aware of the program,” Jordan told The Enterprise last week.

The Albany County Sheriff’s Office had informed the Hilltowns last year that additional funds would be charged to all the towns except Knox — which uses Guilderland’s paramedics — due to more emergency medical services staff being stationed in the Hilltowns after the town of Rensselaerville’s volunteer ambulance service closed.

Lyons eventually said that the town’s 2018 bill from the county would be paid in 2019, and the 2019 bill would be paid in 2020. But Willsey said in an email this week that there was “no question” Lyons wanted to eliminate the program, giving the supervisor’s reluctance to include the funds in the budget.

Lyons wrote in an email that he had already signed a contract for the ambulance service, and that the reason the funding was not in the 2019 budget was because the payment was not due until the following year, in 2020.

He said that he believes his decisions to change healthcare brokers and amend the highway workers’ union contract were “administrative and not legislative” and able to be done without town board involvement.

“In the future I will notify the board when decisions have been made or need to be made, or as pertinent information is needed to be given to the board,” he wrote.

Jordan also said last week that the supervisor told the board members he did not inform them of the amendments to the highway workers’ contract out of concern that it would be a “road block,” indicating, she said, that the supervisor had some idea that the board should be informed.

She told The Enterprise that what prompted the censure had been the discovery last month of the amendments to the collective bargaining agreement.

“The MOA was like the last straw,” she said of the memorandum of agreement. “It unfortunately has been a pattern and was one of the more serious ones.”

Following the reading of the censure, Palow called it “a bunch of lies,” saying that the supervisor never wanted to eliminate the county ambulance program. He also disagreed with a reference to one of the amendments to the highway workers’ contract that states the change would allow for a four-day workweek at the highway department year-round.

The resolution was referencing the lack of start or end dates for the period of the compressed workweek, but Lyons has asserted that it was to be during the “fiscal summer” for the highway department and was not intended to be year-round.

Palow and Willsey began arguing after Schimmer asked Willsey to second the motion, ending with Palow telling Willsey that he couldn’t put on his “big boy pants,” without help from Schimmer. Lyons asked the board to settle down as well as the audience but Palow said he was not aware of this.

“I was so upset and was so focused on my thoughts, and looking at Sean’s face, how upset and disappointed he was … I didn’t even hear or see anybody’s reaction from the crowd,” Palow told The Enterprise.

Members of the audience had begun to argue with board members about censuring the supervisor before Lyons called for order.

“I know Sean was upset. He has every right to be upset. But he took control of the meeting … That’s exactly what the supervisor is supposed to do and I’m happy to see that,” Jordan later told The Enterprise. Palow also commended the supervisor, and said after the meeting he apologized to Lyons for the outburst.

Jordan added that what would be most appropriate now would be to move on from the matter.

Schimmer wrote that the board members did not take pleasure in introducing the resolution, and she was disappointed that the response to it was so aggressive.

“The response was in support of me and what the audience felt was lies and hypocrisy from the board members who wrote and passed this resolution,” Lyons wrote in an email Thursday. “Regardless of the fact that the outcries were for support of me I had to raise my voice to gain control and order of the room … .”

In response to whether Lyons had managed the meeting well, Willsey said that the supervisor was stoking “misplaced anger” of the public that had made the meeting unmanageable. He also said that Palow’s behavior was not suitable for a councilman, adding that in one of the closed-door sessions Palow had threatened him by saying he should move if he didn’t like how the highway superintendent was running things.

“I never threatened Joel in any way … ,” said Palow, in response. “It’s just comments I make. Maybe he takes it as a threat.”

He declined to comment on the closed-door session but did say he told Willsey that, if he didn’t like how things were going, he should resign. Palow added that in the past Willsey has confronted him as well.

Palow told The Enterprise that he and Lyons were unaware of the resolution to censure before it was read out loud.

“It was a big surprise for Sean and I,” he said.

Palow said that, like the rest of the board, he was unaware of the changes to the highway contract, but he believes the supervisor was authorized to do so, describing it as “just administrative paperwork.”

He also defended the amendments that were made, including expanding the four-day compressed workweek, which he said uses the workers’ time more efficiently, and does not increase overtime hours or affect the local school district’s busing as the resolution had suggested

“And yes, they deserve time off for busting their butts,” he added.

Palow also said that other items in the censure such as changing the town’s insurance or eliminating board liaison positions had nothing to do with the town board.

“Sean makes decisions on his own,” he said. “That’s why the people made him town supervisor.”

Palow said he did not see the censure having any effect.

“It’s not going to have an impact at all … ,” he said. “Sean and I will just move on.”

Schimmer said in an email that the censure was the only option for the town board to respond to the supervisor’s actions.

“We expressed our concern each time a new situation arose, but those concerns seemed to fall on deaf ears,” she wrote.

Jordan told The Enterprise last week that she and Schimmer had worked on the censure together, with Schimmer drafting most of it. Willsey also reviewed the document, she said. But Jordan said that not informing members of the opposing party should not be equated to Lyons’s actions.

“We did not vote; we did not make a policy decision,” she said.

In an email this week, Schimmer said that the censure was only a rebuke, and not policy or legislation. Willsey likewise agreed, noting that the supervisor and deputy supervisor have also met together without the knowledge of the rest of the board such as for a tour of the town-owned Switzkill Farm that led to the building inspector being brought in and making a controversial decision to abruptly remove long-time tenants until smoke detectors were fixed. He described their actions in general as “deliberately deceptive.”

A censure does not affect an elected leader besides issuing an official reprimand of his or her actions.

In April, the Knox supervisor voted along with the rest of the Knox Town Board to censure himself for lying about completion of past years’ state-required annual reports.

Jordan said that it was the only thing that could be done in response to what Lyons had done. She added that it would also go down in public records and make the public aware.

“This is a way of putting them on official alert,” she said.

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