Berne rejects shared-services agreement in tense meeting

A screenshot from the slideshow Berne councilman Joel Willsey sent to the rest of the Berne Town Board ahead of its Aug. 26 regular meeting exhibits the level of detail Willsey puts into the slideshows he makes about Berne’s highway department, which is run by Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger, of whom Willsey is highly critical. Some council members acknowledged during the meeting that they did not look carefully through Willsey’s latest slideshow. 

BERNE — The Berne Town Board did not sign a shared-highway-services agreement in what appeared to be an attempt by GOP-backed board members to spite the board’s lone Democrat, Joel Willsey, who had concerns about the town borrowing outside equipment while Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger appears not to follow New York Vehicle and Traffic Law. 

Bashwinger chairs the Berne Republican Committee.

“How about if we just don’t sign this,” GOP-backed councilmember Mathew Harris said during the Aug. 26 regular meeting, after arguing with Willsey. “How about if we just say no, and then whatever expenses we need to incur because we didn’t sign this document, we’ll discuss line-item at a time. Let’s find out how much this is really going to cost the town.”

Willsey, a retired Department of Transportation employee who has long criticized Bashwinger for breaching state law, had sent a slideshow of information to the town board before the meeting that addressed his concerns with Bashwinger’s practices and how they related to a shared-services agreement, but Harris and Supervisor Sean Lyons both indicated during the meeting that they did not review Willsey’s information carefully, if at all. 

“What [Willsey] sent me, I did not read very carefully,” Harris said. “I’ll be honest. I was expecting somebody to say ‘Paragraph 4, section 6, we need the words to say this.’ Your comments, while they were useful and prudent, didn’t really, to me, have anything to do with [the shared services agreement].”

Lyons said he thought Willsey’s slideshow contained information that he had already presented to the town board in recent years. 

Willsey’s slideshow has been uploaded to the Altamont Enterprise website alongside a letter to the editor he submitted, published in the Sept. 3 edition of the paper. 

“So you didn’t read the document that I sent you, which is very explicit [in its relation to the shared services agreement],” Willsey told Harris. “So you didn’t get my message at all.”

“I just didn’t see how traffic control had anything to do with [the agreement],” Harris said.

Willsey suggested that the equipment and workers of other highway departments would be at risk on Berne roads. “You don’t see how that matters?” asked Willsey. 

“To the purposes of this particular document,” Harris said, “it wasn’t terribly relevant.” 

Eventually, Harris requested that a vote be taken on whether or not to sign the document. “I’d like to raise a motion that we don’t sign this document,” Harris said. “We simply just put it away because of Joel’s concerns about all these things. I don’t think it makes a difference to the document and I don’t see including it in the document, so let’s just not do it.” 

Only Supervisor Sean Lyons, a Republican, voted in favor of signing the agreement, despite Willsey’s claims that he is not against the idea of shared services, rather the town’s risk of liability under Bashwinger’s watch.

Harris did not explicitly argue for or against the principle of shared services, focusing only on Willsey’s objections. He could not be reached for comment on the matter. 

Municipalities in the Enterprise coverage area have long shared highway-department resources, but have not always done so under a formal arrangement. Knox and Westerlo both signed onto a shared services contract that included neighboring towns like Guilderland this year with little board discussion. 


Tensions high

The shared-services agreement was one part of a regular town board meeting that was marred by tensions between Willsey and the other board members. Throughout the meeting — which was meant to address a new highway worker contract, budget reductions, shared services, and which also saw a successful motion by Willsey to publish a recording made of an April executive session (see related story) — Willsey drilled into the details of every issue, visibly annoying the other board members as well as the town’s attorney, Javid Afzali, whom Willsey claims conspires against him with the GOP-backed board members. 

According to the meeting agenda, all business was expected to have concluded by 8:20 p.m., less than 90 minutes after the meeting’s 7 p.m. commencement. Instead, the meeting lasted nearly two-and-a-half hours. 

Willsey’s intense and often granular line of questioning, such as the meaning of the word “annual” in a legal document, resulted in the board tabling the town’s budget reductions, which were meant to address revenue shortfalls resulting from the coronavirus shutdown. 

Willsey claimed that he was not given enough time to review the proposals — a complaint he frequently levies against the town board — and asked if it was necessary to vote on them that night. The reductions, Lyons had said, were in areas that had expenses not required for this year, meaning that the reductions were not time-sensitive. 

“You’re going to vote on this amendment,” Willsey said, “after how long have I had to look at this?”

“That’s your vote,” Lyons said. 

“What’s my vote?” asked Willsey.

“Whatever you decide to vote,” Lyons replied. 

“Move on with the meeting,” a resident shouted from the back of the room. 

Councilman Dennis Palow, who attended the meeting remotely from Germany, left the meeting early once all voting had taken place, citing the duration of the meeting and his schedule in a different time-zone.  ​

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