Berne council race is wide open

BERNE — As the two Democratic incumbents on the town board here are not seeking re-election, the town board race pits two Democrats — Frank Brady and Brian Bunzey — against two Republican nominees: Bonnie Conklin and Matthew Harris. All but Conklin are new to elected office.

Conklin had been elected to the Berne town board in 2011, the first Republican to win a seat in more than 20 years in a town where the number of enrolled Democrats is more than double the number of Republicans.

Conklin resigned in November 2013 in the midst of her term, citing increasing responsibilities at her job and discomfort in voicing her disagreement at board meetings.

But now the playing field has been leveled. In the last town election, two years ago, the Democrats hung on to their majority by a single vote when Democrat Joel Willsey, making his first run, won by that single vote.

He eked out a win over Frank Brady, a Democrat who ran on the Republican ticket. Brady this year is running under his own party’s banner.

Berne’s Republican resurgence, spearheaded by its party chairman, Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger, brought two Republicans to the board in the last election: Supervisor Sean Lyons and Councilman Dennis Palow, both new to town office.

The supervisor and council members in Berne all have four-year terms.

Many controversial town board votes in the last two years have fallen along party lines, with the Democrats winning, 3 to 2. For the last couple of months, either just the two Republicans attended the town board meeting, or just the three Democrats.

Bashwinger said after this year’s Republican Party caucus that the GOP is again “going with people, not party.” Conklin is a Conservative and Harris is a member of the Independence Party. In addition to the Republican line, they also have the Independence, Working Families, and Conservative lines.

Brady and Bunzey are both enrolled as Democrats and are running solely on the Democratic line. Their campaign flyer has this slogan: “Bunzey & Brady: Always putting people and principles before politics.”

Berne has 2,048 registered voters, according to the Albany County Board of Elections: 877 are enrolled as Democrats and 391 as Republicans with 542 not affiliated with any party. The rest are enrolled in small parties: 140 Independence Party members, 76 Conservatives, 8 Green Party members, 5 Working Families Party members, 4 Libertarians, 3 Reform Party members, 1 Serve America Movement member, and 1 Women’s Equality Party member.

Issues

The Enterprise asked the candidates about these issues:

— Civil discourse: The three Democratic council members said they felt unsafe after a Republican councilman threatened one of them at a town board meeting. Subsequently, they did not attend the next meeting since the supervisor wouldn’t agree to use the town’s metal detector. At the September meeting, the three Democrats passed measures that will see a sheriff’s deputy manning a metal detector for town board meetings.

What would you do to see that board members can have productive discussions? What security measures, if any, does the town hall need?

— Solar and fracking moratoriums: The town currently has moratoriums in place while legislation is developed on industrial-scale solar arrays and hydraulic fracturing. In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing.

What restrictions on solar arrays and fracking would you like to see in place and why?

— Highway department: A number of conflicts have developed between the board’s current Democratic majority and the town’s highway superintendent, Randy Bashwinger, who is also Berne’s Republican Party chairman. The Democratic majority has been critical of Bashwinger working a second, political job weekday mornings at the Albany County Board of Elections, as well as claiming improper safety measures, pointing to a van that was upended in August when a road-repair site wasn’t barricaded. Further, Supervisor Sean Lyons and several board members have met with consultant Mike Richardson to perform a needs assessment of the highway department, to help with budgeting, to find ways to better fund equipment, and to assess the number of workers needed.

Should the highway superintendent be in Berne on weekday mornings? Why or why not? Are proper safety measures being followed? Is working with a consultant to assess department needs worthwhile? Why or why not? Are more or fewer workers needed?

— Emergency Medical Services: While Berne still has an active volunteer squad, Helderberg Ambulance, dwindling volunteers require supplementing from Albany County EMS. The county is moving to more full-time workers and the cost is being passed along to municipalities, some of which are pushing for state legislation that would set up a district within Albany County for tax purposes so that county rather than town taxes would pay for EMS.

What are your thoughts on financing emergency medical services?

— Garbage: Tipping fees charged by the Albany City Landfill on Rapp Road to the town continue to rise. The landfill is also expected to close within a matter of years. At the same time, as China is no longer purchasing the world’s refuse, recycling fees have become erratic; some commodities that the town used to get paid for, it now has to pay to dispose of.

What is the solution to these issues?

— Tax cap: Should the town board ever vote to go above the state-set 2-percent levy limit. If so, what would the situation have to be to do so?

— Business and agriculture: Should the town government encourage or assist agriculture and business development in Berne and, if so, what sort of programs or legislation should be implemented to do so? If not, why not?

 

 


 

 

 

Bonnie Conklin

 

BERNE — Bonnie Conklin has a list of specific goals she’d like to accomplish, if elected, to make the town where she grew up a better place.

“Since my mom passed away two years ago,” she said of Linda Carman, “I want to continue some of her hopes and dreams.

“The big one is affordable senior housing in the Hilltowns.”

Years ago, developer Jeff Thomas had proposed a senior facility but had been waiting for public water and sewer. “Jeff Thomas came out two months ago because the sewer has been implemented. We’re just waiting for the water supply,” said Conklin, crediting Berne Planning Board member Michael Vincent with “implementing those talks.”

Conklin said one of her campaign messages is: “Present town codes don’t aid our present town needs.”

Conklin, who lives in the hamlet of Berne, says the hamlet should be rezoned as a non-historic district.

“We have Dollar General in East Berne now, which has been great, and there’s the Mobil Mart and Agway, but we don’t have anything on the west side of the hamlet.”

Conklin said she has approached Stewart’s Shops and Cumberland Farms about opening a gas station and convenience store in the hamlet. “They’re not interested but I’ll keep pushing,” she said.

Conklin went on, “Stewart’s tried over a decade ago. A small number of people who didn’t want it had a big voice.”

She says a store at the west end of the hamlet would be handy for school staff and bus drivers.

Conklin said, too, that there are now 15 buildings in the hamlet that are either vacant or for sale. “I think it’s because, right now, we don’t have resources like a store on this side of town.”

She also said, “The houses are older. It’s costly to re-do them. It almost feels like we’re a dying community up here. It’s sad.”

Conklin, who graduated from Berne-Knox-Westerlo in 1989, said she can count on her fingers the number of graduates who stayed after high school and still live in the area.

Conklin works at the school now, as a teacher’s aid.

Another goal she has is to work with the town’s youth council and also to support the relatively new Helderberg Family and Community Organization, suggesting that town funds could be contributed.

Conklin also noted that the town now has a bus used to transport elderly residents; she’d like it used for youth, too, to take them to summer soccer and art camps.

She’d also like to see the town park upgraded with more modern play equipment.

While she says that Switzkill Farm is “a great resource,” Conklin went on, “I just don’t think our town should be responsible for all the repairs.” The money, she said, could be better spent on youth programs.

Conklin also said she believes the highway department should be better supported with “more manpower and equipment.”

She also supports stricter enforcement of zoning. “A number of residents in the town of Berne have come to town board meetings to explain their frustration … Neighbors have issues with multiple cars and garbage around. The laws are not being enforced. We need to be more firm and strict.”

“Regarding security measures,” she said, “we had an Albany County deputy present … That’s all the security we need. I don’t believe in the metal detector.”

Conklin went on, “I just feel in this day and age, we shouldn’t judge [people by] political parties. We should work together. We’re there for the people. A lot of people are so disgusted because nothing’s getting done.”

On the current moratoriums, Conklin said, “I like the idea of solar and solar farms. I’d like to see that in the community. We have a lot of land right now that is not farm productive. That would be a strength for the community.”

She also said, “I really don’t think they would frack here. I would not be against it. I’m for using our natural resources. It will make us stronger.”

On the highway department, she said, “I feel Randy Bashwinger is a leader in our town in a lot of aspects. He can manage both working down at Albany and back at Berne. He is allowed to make his own schedule. He is very trustworthy and can handle both.”

About the consultant doing a needs assessment, Conklin said, “They have spent a lot of money on something that does not need to be done.” She said the number of workers needed should be left up to to Bashwinger.

On emergency medical services, Conklin said, “I really don’t mind paying more if the county has to get in. We need those services up here.”

She related an experience she had when her mother, living near the Schoharie border, was sick. “We called 9-1-1 … It took over half an hour,” she said for an ambulance to arrive.

Conklin explained that the Helderberg squad was out on a call and paramedics from Guilderland arrived who didn’t know how to get to the hospital from Berne. “It’s not their fault,” she said, concluding, “We really need funding.”

On garbage, Conklin said, she would have to “study up” on solutions. “We have a suitable recycling center,” she said. “If we need to recycle more, we’ll have to do it, maybe with stricter guidelines.”

On the tax cap, she said, “I don’t believe we need to go above the 2 percent.” She said of Berne’s budgeting, “we’re pretty stable.”

On supporting business, conklin said, “The first thing we need to do is change the zoning for a store.” she said that both businesses and homeowners are under too many restrictions in the hamlet.

Updates on houses would be more likely, she said, “if we had fewer restrictions.

“We’re historic, but we’re not that historic,” she said.

 

 


 

 

Brian Bunzey

 

BERNE — Brian Bunzey, a lifetime resident of Berne, says, at age 62, he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps,serving the public.

His father was a tax collector for Berne for 18 years and also a town judge.

“Now it’s my turn to step up to the plate,” said Bunzey, a Democrat.

He works in Westerlo, in the maintenance department at Hannay Reels.

“I would love to see the town of Berne prosper with more events,” Bunzey said of his primary goal, if elected.

He envisions visitors coming to Berne the way they come to nearby Thacher Park to see the cliffs. 

“We just came back from the Glens Falls balloon festival,” he said. “Events like that would bring people in to see what a quaint little town we are.”

About civil discourse at town meetings, Bunzey said he doesn’t think a metal detector is needed.

“Being part of the town for so many years — we’re a small town — I feel that really isn’t necessary,” he said.

He feels this way about how town board members should proceed: “Leave some of your feelings at the door and do the job you were elected to do.”

Bunzey believes the town needs restrictions on commercial solar arrays. “There are toxic particles in solar panels,” he said. “Until the federal government learns how to deal with that, we shouldn’t have large solar arrays.”

He said it is up to individual property owners if they want panels on their own homes.

On hydraulic fracturing, Bunzey said, “The Berne area is not geographically set for that..”

But, if it were, he said, “I don’t want to see it.” Bunzey reiterated that he doesn’t think it will happen.

On the town’s highway department, asked if the superintendent should be in Berne on weekday mornings, Bunzey said, “Yes, he should be. He is the superintendent and I know he can delegate work. But he should be there each morning to discuss the jobs and make sure they have the proper tools to do the job in a safe manner.”

Bunzey himself worked for the Berne Highway Department in the 1970s, he said, noting that a lot has changed since then. “There were 12 of us,” he said of highway workers. “I’d like to see 8 to 10 people for summer mowing and assisting the road crews in winter.”

Bunzey had been a wingman, he said, and one of the things that has changed is now trucks can be operated solo by a driver, without a wingman, as long as the driver has passed a state test to qualify.

If he is elected, Bunzey said, he would like to see the entire board visit the highway garage to “see if we could rectify in-house what we see.”

On emergency medical services, Bunzey said that quick response is essential.

“A gentleman was injured here the other day,” he said, speaking to The Enterprise from Westerlo on his lunch break from Hannay Reels. “The Westerlo squad was here in minutes.”

That volunteer squad is retiring at the end of the year and the county EMS is taking over in Westerlo.

“If Albany County can provide the same quick response,” Bunzey said, it should be considered if volunteers dwindle in Berne as they have elsewhere.

Bunzey stressed that he would need further information before he made any definitive statements.

On garbage, he said, when he worked for Berne in the 1970s, “I was running a landfill. We just dumped everything and anything and covered it up.”

Bunzey went on, “Several years later, the town of Berne was a model for setting up a recycling facility.”

Bunzey also said, “The state has to come up with a way to recycle more and be more frugal.”

The initiative has to be nationwide, he said, with the United States making recycled materials into usable goods here since it is no longer exporting the refuse to China.

On the tax cap, Bunzey said, “It has to go above 2 percent if the town is starting to fail and go under.”

Essential needs like paying salaries and buying equipment have to be met, he said, “so we’re not in a deficit like other towns that are going broke. It’s the cost of doing business.”

Asked about business and agriculture, Bunzey said, “By all means, we should be encouraging business. Recently we had Dollar General come in. It’s creating revenue, employing townspeople, generating tax revenues.”

The town should support agriculture, too, he said. “The farms around here are being sold off and houses are being built,” Bunzey said. “You still have to feed people.”

He went on, “Halloween is coming. Kids love jack-o-lanterns. You have to grow them. People love farmers’ markets,” he said, returning to his original theme of hosting a fall festival.

Bunzey concluded, “I would encourage taxpayers to come to town board meetings.” If elected, he said, “I am there for the people. I want them to have a voice … I want a transparent situation for our townspeople.”

 

 


 

 

Frank Brady

BERNE — In the last town election, in 2017, Frank Brady, a lifelong Democrat, ran on the GOP line and lost his first race for town board by a single vote.

“I thought I owed it to the taxpayers to run again,” he said. “Six-hundred-and-seventeen people wanted me in.”

This November, he is running solely on the Democratic line.

“Everybody should value the community,” Brady said. He gave an example of health care in the Helderbergs. This summer, the only doctor’s office in town closed. 

“I reached out to Jill Martin,” he said of the nurse practitioner that will soon be reopening as her own practice the doctor’s office on Helderberg Trail where she had worked. (See related story.)

“I think health care is important,” said Brady. He said he had his medical records transferred to Ticonderoga with the doctor who had left. “I’m transferring them back,” he said, going on about Martin: “She’s doing an honorable thing for the community.”

Brady also said that he has “reached out” — to no avail — to both Stewart’s and Cumberland Farms to see if either would open a store in Berne. He said of Cumberland Farms, “They need 20,000 vehicles a day going by … We get 4,000 a day.”

Brady, who is 66, moved to Berne over 40 years ago, he said, because his wife grew up in Berne.

He’s retired from a 41-year career at the state’s Department of Taxation and Finance. “I was in the union for over 25 years,” he said, “I worked up to first vice president in Tax and Finance. I’ve been involved in many a protest for employees.”

He said, “You have to have patience when you’re a union activist.”

Brady continued, “I listen to people.” He described situations where people had been upset and he advised “sleeping on it,” and they calmed down.

On using a metal detector for town meetings, Brady said, “I see nothing wrong with that in this day and age. I don’t think it’s against anyone in the town.”

He went on, “I’ve been to training for workplace violence.” He said it’s possible for someone to “go off the deep end” that would not be expected.

“On the town board, I can have a relationship with them … You can’t let someone keep going off; that’s not good,” Brady said, adding, “We all lose our temper sometimes.”

On hydraulic fracturing, Brady said, “I’m in favor of a moratorium until we can do more research. These companies offer you a lot of money … It could contaminate wells. From what I see with fracking out west, it’s damaged a lot of property.”

On solar, he said, “I’m not against individual solar for families.”

On commercial solar, he referenced the massive arrays at the former Shepard Farm resort in South Westerlo, which he called “unsightly.”

Brady concluded, “I don’t know if the benefit outweighs what it looks like.”

On the town’s highway department, Brady said, “The highway superintendent should be there every day. That’s his job.”

He went on, “It’s legal for him not to be, but it’s unethical. With benefits, he’s being paid $70,000 a year. How can you supervise employees when you’re not there? … You’ve got to be o site.”

On the van that was upended because of road excavation, Brady said, “From what I saw, it didn’t look like” proper safety measures were followed. “If that happened on my watch, I’d look into it.”

Brady said he could work with anybody and concluded, “You can’t cut corners.”

On hiring a consultant to assess highway department needs, Brady said, “Some are saying it’s wasted money but you get another set of eyes, someone who is independent.”

On highway department staffing, Brady said, “I know a lot of the guys down there. If elected, I’d be down there, trying to find out. As a union vice president, I tried to find out what employees needed.”

He concluded, “The town needs to run efficiently. We can’t hire more people when the superintendent ain’t there. That don’t make sense.”

On emergency medical services, Brady said, “I’m all in favor of the sheriff’s department being involved without getting rid of the local EMS.”

He went on, “It’s very important to have health care up here … If you need an EMS person, you need them right away.”

Brady concluded, “I’m all about help. Let’s try to help. Make sure you have the sources to go and get the answers you need … Misinformation stirs that pot more.”

On garbage, he said, “I don’t have a solution right now. I don’t know if they could burn stuff. It could be toxic.”

He also said, “We need to recycle more … When I was a kid, you got a glass soda bottle and brought it back.”

He contrasted the glass bottle that was refilled time and time again with the current plastic bottles that are used just once.

On the tax cap, he said, “The tax cap hurts the county and the towns.”

Brady said, as a member of the town board, you would want to stay below the cap so people would get their rebate checks, but that could mean cutting services.

“Somewhere down the line, the state should loosen restrictions. Everything’s a state mandate. Everything trickles down from the federal to the state to the county to the towns and villages. The towns and villages hurt the most,” he said.

Brady thinks the town should try to help both farms and businesses. 

“Farms are dwindling left and right all over,” he said, noting, “It’s all stone and rock in the Hilltowns.”

As for businesses in town, Brady said, “A small grocery store would be nice. Granted, we now have Dollar General, but that doesn’t cover everything … Fox Creek Market is doing well I gather … But if you get too many, you take business away.”

Overall, Brady said of being on the town board, “We need to have the town come together and quit fighting.”

Brady noted that he is still active in Local 999 of the Civil Service Employees Association; he’s co-chair of the Retiree Political Action Committee.

“Everybody’s always about what they can get, not the other person,” he said.

Brady remembered, when he was working, “The governor was going to lay off 900 people … I’d rather have no raise and have others keep their job,” he said.

 


 

 

Mathew Harris

BERNE — Mathew Harris says he’s running for Berne Town Board because he wants to listen to town residents.

When he attended town board meetings, he said, he was “sort of unhappy” with how citizens bringing their concerns to the board were treated, he said.

“The general feeling or atmosphere — I thought, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” said Harris. “I got this feeling that people on the town board had already decided what to do before they heard from people in town.”

Harris, 67, moved to Berne four years ago. He has the backing of the Republican party and also several small-party lines: the Conservative, Working Families, and Independence parties.  Harris himself enrolled this week as a member of the Independence Party, he said; he had not been enrolled in a party before.

A Navy veteran, Harris has retired from his career with the Department of Defense as an electrical engineer, working with the Army Research Laboratory.

Describing how his career prepared him for a post on the town board, Harris said, “You have to work with a huge array of people … You have to be able to work with everybody to get the job done.”

He sees being on the town board as “an opportunity to encourage and promote accountability, personal responsibility, and transparency, and work with everyone on the board regardless of party.” He stressed, “Party politics should be over the day after the election.”

If he’s elected, Harris said, he would “report directly to the residents of Berne by respecting everybody’s views and opinions without party prejudice.”

Asked about his goals, if elected, Harris said, as he was campaigning, he was asked what his agenda is. “My agenda is to leave Berne a better place than when I found it,” he said.

“I don’t have an idea what the town should or shouldn’t have. The people in the town have been sort of disregarded … It’s not what I think; it’s what they think” that is important, Harris said.

On civil discourse, Harris said, “What a lot of people don’t realize is people who are veterans — myself and Dennis Palow included,” he said, referring to Berne’s Republican councilman, “veterans take an oath to support and defend not just the United State Constitution but all of the offices.”

He went on, “There is no safer place you could be than surrounded by a bunch of vets.

“My opinion is, this is something that got out of hand … It sort of caught fire and shouldn’t have. It could have been ended with a sincere apology.”

Harris doesn’t believe metal detectors are necessary at town board meetings. “All people should be able to come in without passing through a metal detector,” he said.

On hydraulic fracturing, Harris said that, with the governor’s ban, there is very little discussion about it.

He also thinks the work going into the bill on industrial-scale solar is overblown. “The science and technology end is: There is very little large-scale solar we can do in Berne; it’s limited by access to power lines that can take it. We have about five megawatts so 20-odd acres of panels is the most we could put on the grid, and that’s in only one small portion of town.”

Harris said it “doesn’t make sense” to draft a long and detailed bill. “You could open that up to public review,” he said of any solar proposal for the small area of town where it would work.

On the highway department, Harris said the number of workers is up to the elected highway superintendent, who should tell the town board what he wants.

As he’s been campaigning, Harris said, he’s asked around town, “How are the roads?” He went on, “No one seems dissatisfied with work being done on the roads …

“To pay a consultant … I’m not sure that was necessary. But, since they spent the money, it will be interesting to see what he comes up with.” Harris added, “Double-checking is not bad.”

On safety, Harris said, “I see them working on the roads. I’m no expert … I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything unsafe or unusual … I don’t see a problem.”

As for Randy Bashwinger working a second job, Harris said, “If people came to the board and said, ‘My stuff’s not getting done’ … then we’d have to say, ‘You need to be spending more time on the roads.’ But I haven’t heard people at town meetings saying that … People seem satisfied.”

He concluded, “If no one’s complaining, to me, there isn’t a problem.”

On emergency medical services, Harris said the current system works well where the county fills in with the volunteer squad in Berne as needed. “I don’t know that anyone’s complained about not being adequately served,” he said.

On disposing of garbage, Harris said, “In this town, there’s not much we can do. We encourage people to recycle more.”

He went on, “If we could convince our people to pull out metal instead of lumping it in, we might be able to eke out some revenue. If we look at how we recycle, we may be able to optimize it.”

He concluded, “We’re at the mercy of people at the end of our chain.”

On the tax cap, Harris said, “In the normal operation of the town, our expenses are reasonably predictable.”

Harris noted several methods the town could use to avoid going over the tax cap: “We can save up, spend down our reserves, have bond issues.”

He went on, “If you’ve managed to budget well, you shouldn’t have to go over the 2 percent.”

If the town were to suffer from catastrophic weather, and money had to be raised to deal with it, “It should be returned when flood water subsided,” said Harris, also noting that, in such a catastrophe, federal and state funds would probably be available.

On business and agriculture, Harris said, “Agriculture is a business. I believe any business wanting to invest in Berne should be given a fair hearing. Geography or geology could prohibit some businesses from coming to the town.”

He noted that Berne isn’t suited to many businesses. “Those people already know that, and wouldn’t come here anyway.”

Harris concluded, “The town board needs to listen and talk to townspeople [about proposed businesses] to help smooth the way for the business to invest.

“The town board should facilitate what the people want. If people don’t want it,” Harris said, then the board should decline the business or require the business to make changes to its plan.

More Hilltowns News

  • Steve Pfleging

    Former Rensselaerville supervisor, Steven Pfleging, pleaded guilty to petit larceny the same day he restored the $13,000 he stole from the town. He was sentenced to 50 hours of community service.

  • TJA Clean Energy, which was planning to propose a solar farm in Berne that spans up to approximately 25 acres near the intersection of Switzkill and Canaday Hill roads, says that the town’s newly adopted industrial-scale solar-energy facility regulations “throw a wrench” in the development process. The town’s law restricts the size of solar facilities to 10 acres. ​

  • Esports, or competitive video gaming, is a $1 billion dollar industry that Berne-Knox-Westerlo teacher William Dergosits wants to bring to the school. He says it may open doors for students academically, professionally, and socially — especially for those in what he calls the “hidden demographic.” 

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