Planning board chairman should not blatantly endorse politicians

To the Editor:
I am compelled to respond to the inappropriate sweeping political endorsement of the Berne GOP candidates by the Berne planning board chairman in last week’s edition [“Here’s why I support the GOP candidates”].

That position must be apolitical, or respect and legitimacy is adversely impacted.

Not surprisingly, no real accomplishments for the town are featured in his endorsement for GOP candidates with years of experience with the town.

GOP-backed board members didn’t show up for the scheduled September meeting. It was rescheduled and they didn’t show up again.

On the third attempt, one GOP-backed board member resigned due to the toxic environment and another didn’t show up. 

A local contractor with decades of experience, who specializes in civil-engineering projects, criticized the superintendent of highways candidate, noting and demonstrating unsafe deficiencies in the Bush Drive project. I documented that the same project was, again, totally noncompliant with mandated safety standards.

Now the second GOP-endorsed board member has resigned in as many years. It’s incredible that anyone would blindly endorse all GOP candidates given the actual performance — and I am just scraping the surface.

The planning board chairman is citing his crucial, appointed position in his letter to lend credibility to his poorly supported political endorsements. This was done in a lapse of judgement.

One doesn’t just cite a position of authority so readers will ignore it. This situation indicates a limited understanding of appearances that should be avoided to protect the image and legitimacy of the planning board and or its chair.

Clearly it is best that a planning board chairman remain unbiased by politics and independent from any potential town board complicity in planning board actions. I encourage anyone to talk to the New York State Department of State for an opinion.

This is particularly bad in this town with the toxic politics and a well-documented record of harassment, intimidation, and illegal appointments to manipulate planning board membership. The appearance of a compromised planning board is a very serious vulnerability that can undermine legitimacy and the respect of the people.

The long terms and staggering of the terms of planning board members evolved to minimize the occurrence and appearance of any close relationship between planning board members and the town board members who appointed them.

Even the mere appearance of collusion or coercion between politicians and planning board members, particularly the chairman, is well beyond undesirable. It is absolutely not recommended by the Department of State for a planning board chairman to blatantly endorse politicians.

Don’t forget the all-out attack to destroy the comprehensive plan headed by Mr. Mathew Harris, a GOP-backed board member who has since resigned. And then there is the attempted replacement of the recently adopted solar law to allow much larger facilities with very small setbacks.

These are all symptoms that someone wants to build something not currently favored by Berne’s zoning and comprehensive plan. We already have the appearance that the planning board chair could be targeted for collusion or coercion. So far, the only outright indication that Mr. Joe Martin could be involved in all this inappropriate nonsense is this inappropriate, sweeping political endorsement.

At the September meeting, Mr. Martin, the planning board chairman, literally sat with the town board in Bonnie Conklin’s newly vacant seat at the dais before it was even cold. It’s certainly not clear where the planning board ends, and the town board begins in this administration.

Why is the planning board chairman given this position at meetings with the board where he is free to weigh in on town board discussions? We have a very strict policy for public comment. His input at town board meetings should be limited to planning board issues when they are on the agenda.

The planning board chairman is not an elected town board representative, and it is inappropriate to provide public exposure like this to future candidates by allowing them to sit with the board. This is politically motivated to allow free exposure and the appearance of a legitimately elected representative.

This creates incumbent advantage to a degree. The town needs rules regarding who can sit at the dais with the town board.

I have had objective and insightful conversations with Mr. Martin and appreciate a lot of his input.  But his sweeping endorsement and political opinions don’t reflect his more typically thoughtful discourse. I am disappointed.

Joel Willsey

Berne Town Board

Editor’s note: See related story on Bush Drive.

Joel Willsey, the only Democrat on the Berne Town Board, is not seeking re-election.

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