Let’s hope Berne board gets the law straight before draining more town funds for pointless services from expensive firms

To the Editor:

In law school is there a course or perhaps just an optional seminar on dithering at length when you need to avoid an undesired answer to a question from a client? That was certainly the case at last week’s Berne Town Board meeting.

The town’s lawyer had apparently been tasked with finding a way to invalidate the town’s purchase of Switzkill Farm in 2014. The board was obviously hoping to hear that, without a public referendum on the purchase at the time, the purchase was invalid. 

The lawyer went into his faulty findings at length and finally concluded that there was a six-year statute of limitation on invalidating uncontested actions such as the purchase of Switzkill Farm without a referendum. The town has two months before that limitation comes due, he told the board.

The town could do nothing or it could begin litigation, a juicy prospect — win or lose — for his law firm since it would be going against Albany County, the Mohawk-Hudson Land Conservancy, and the Open Space Institute as well as the Tenzin Gyatso Institute, the not-for-profit then selling the property. 

A letter from Karen Schimmer read to the board by John Zelenac, chairman of the virtually inactivated Switzkill Farm Board, provided ample documentation of the extensive efforts of the 2014 town board to publicize and familiarize the residents of Berne with the opportunity to share the purchase price of the tax-exempt 350-acre property and buildings with the above-mentioned entities.

As pointed out Wednesday by board member [Deputy Supervisor Dennis] Palow, the town’s share was $127,000 of the $475,000 price. I don’t think he mentioned that Berne paid its share in cash, a very important point the long-winded lawyer should have known.

The town of Berne recently contracted to buy a tricked-out dump truck for $247,000 — in cash thanks to the $1,000,000 reserve built up by previous town administrators. You may have noted, as I certainly have when voting on a school budget, that school district voters are asked to approve the purchase of buses.

So why was there no Berne referendum to buy the truck? Duh. The Berne Town Board obviously knew that public bodies only have to call a referendum when they must borrow the money for a large purchase.

And if board members hoped to hoodwink citizens over that pesky point of law and went home cheering for their lawyer’s cleverness in delivering a Holy Grail solution to their Switzkill Farm de-acquisition hopes, they were sadly — and probably expensively for the town — deceived.

Let’s hope they get the law straight in time to stop them from draining more town funds for pointless services from expensive law firms. And further, let’s hope the town board gets smart and starts seeing Switzkill Farm as the asset to the town that it is.

Mary Ann Ronconi


Editor’s note: Mary Ann Ronconi is the wife of Richard Ronconi, a long-time member of the inactivated Switzkill Farm Board.

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