Berne Planning Board seat opens up

Todd Schwendeman

Enterprise file photo — Noah Zweifel

Todd Schwendeman, left, and Tom Spargo at a planning board meeting in January, the first for which Spargo served as chairman despite the planning board’s unanimous recommendation to Town Supervisor Sean Lyons that Schwendeman be appointed chairman.

BERNE — Berne’s GOP-dominated town board will have yet another opportunity to appoint former State Supreme Court justice and convicted felon Tom Spargo to the town’s planning board once it accepts the resignation of planning board member Todd Scwhendeman at its Sept. 9 regular board meeting. 

Scwhendeman, whose term expires at the end of 2022, announced his resignation at the planning board’s Sept. 3 meeting. He told The Enterprise later that it was because he’s moving out of town and that his resignation was effective immediately. 

Neither Supervisor Sean Lyons nor the planning board liaison, Councilman Mathew Harris, could be reached to confirm the town board’s interest in appointing Spargo to fill the vacancy, but the board has already invested significant energy into getting Spargo onto the board, succeeding for a short while before Spargo was removed by the state Supreme Court, the lowest rung in the state’s three-tiered court system. 

Spargo was appointed to the planning board at the town’s Jan. 1 reorganizational meeting and also named the planning board chairman, despite the planning board’s unanimous recommendation to Lyons that Schwendeman be named chairman. Spargo had not been a member of the planning board prior to Jan. 1.

The town board — which had just become a GOP majority board for the first time in decades — made room on the planning board by demoting board member Emily Vincent to alternate status, a role that has limited voting rights but the same attendance and training requirements.

The move was one of the newly GOP-dominated board’s most aggressive changes to the town at the Jan. 1 meeting, and one that drew heavy criticism from residents who were concerned about the felonius Spargo’s moral capacity as a member of a board that has considerable influence over the nature of the town.

Spargo was convicted while he was a state supreme court justice of bribery and extortion in 2009 and sentenced to 27 months in prison. 

“Why don’t we just hire a rapist to the youth council?” resident Barbara Kennedy asked the town board at a meeting earlier this year.

Vincent took the town to court over her demotion and the state Supreme Court ruled in March that Vincent’s demotion was effectively a removal, which can only occur for cause following a hearing. Vincent was reinstated and Spargo was removed, and the town board later appointed planning board member Mike Vincent as acting chairman. 

Shortly after that court ruling, the town board announced that it was interested in expanding the planning board from five to seven members. Seven-member planning boards are not uncommon, but residents were concerned that the expansion would allow the GOP-backed board to stack the planning board in its favor. 

After receiving significant backlash from residents and planning board members alike and virtually no public support, Lyons told The Enterprise that the town board would not make any changes to its expansion plan. 

Before the town board could vote to expand the board, however, Harris said he had discovered that the planning board, which has been in operation since the 1970s, had never been legally formalized.  

While a law constituting the planning board had been adopted by the town in the early ’70s, it may never have been filed with the Department of State. The Department of State confirmed for the Enterprise that no documents related to the creation of a planning board in Berne had been submitted between the years 1972 and 1974.

Although the town board believed it had an opportunity to create a new planning board from the ground up, it decided instead to restore the planning board as it was, surprising the town’s many wary residents. 

Since the planning board was legitimized on July 22, the town board has made no indication that it will seek to expand the number of members of the planning board. And, if the town board still wishes to name Spargo chairman, it is unclear through state law whether they can do that mid-year, or if the appointment must be made once Vincent’s appointment expires or his tenure is ended early.

Town attorney Javid Afzali could not immediately be reached for clarification.


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