Berne election: Bashwinger v. Kennedy for highway superintendent

Randy Bashwinger

Randy Bashwinger

BERNE — Berne Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger hopes to be re-elected, but political newcomer Barbara Kennedy is running against him on the Democratic line, arguing that the town is in need of change.

Bashwinger was elected in the fall of 2014 and took office on Jan. 1, 2015. 

In addition to being the Berne Highway Superintendent, Baswhinger chairs the Albany County Republican Party and, as the former town GOP chair, helped Republicans win control of the town board in 2020.

His partisanship alone has made him controversial in the mostly-Democratic town, but his tenure as highway superintendent has earned him additional scrutiny, particularly from the sole Democratic councilmember, Joel Willsey, a retired state Department of Transportation employee who has been taking issue with Bashwinger’s practices for years. 

In 2019, the Berne Highway Department was working on Bridge Road and had excavated a hole about eight feet deep in the roadway when a 71-year-old woman drove her minivan into it, finding herself stuck for about an hour before the local fire department got her out. She was not seriously injured, but her car was totaled.

In response to the incident, Willsey wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor, criticizing Bashwinger for closing the road with only a sign that allowed for local traffic. The hole itself was unguarded, and it took the highway crew 10 minutes to notice the accident,said the woman, who chose not to press charges. 

However, David Orr, the director of Cornell University’s Local Roads Program, said that, while local highway departments typically follow the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which states that temporary barriers are recommended in work zones, the document is only a guideline and that project leaders are free to make decisions that make sense for the situation at hand.

In instances like this, Bashwinger has generally retained the support of his GOP colleagues. However, a recent botched project has been criticized by Republican Supervisor Sean Lyons, who found himself in rare agreement with Willsey. Lyons is not seeking re-election.

Resident and contractor Rick Rapp, of Bush Drive, gave a presentation to the town board last month, explaining that a recent overlay job compounded existing issues with the slope of his road, which made driving there dangerous. 

Because Bashwinger did not fix the slopes before repaving the road, it appears likely that the job will need to be redone; both Lyons and Republican Councilman Leo Vane indicated, albeit not as strongly as Willsey, that this was the case during that meeting.

More than anything, though, Bashwinger’s opponents point to his role in the death of highway employee Peter Becker, a former volunteer fire chief who was crushed by a dump truck he was working under at the town garage last October. 

At the time of Becker’s death, approximately 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, Bashwinger was away, working for the county Board of Elections — he held a second job at the time, which was already unpopular with Democrats, though he has since resigned — and opponents say that his absence contributed to the accident. They also say that, under Bashwinger’s supervision, important safety measures were not put in place. 

A subsequent investigation by the New York State Department of Labor’s Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau found that the highway department was guilty of seven “serious” safety violations, some of which were administrative in nature. All the violations have since been corrected

Republicans have generally defended Bashwinger on this issue, stating that the administrative flaws in the system were present before he took office on Jan. 1, 2015, nearly six years ago, and that Becker took on known risks when he began working on the truck without following standard procedure. 

Bashwinger, who frequently criticizes The Enterprise, did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed as a candidate before next month’s election. 

Early in his tenure, in 2016, Bashwinger and Kevin Crosier had a bitter dispute over the work week. Crosier, a Democrat, was then the supervisor; he currently chairs the town’s Democratic Committee.

Bashwinger wanted the highway crew to work 10-hour days four days a week, which he said was more efficient, rather than five eight-hour days. Crosier laid off two workers — Josh Gebe and Peter Becker — without telling Bashwinger. Bashwinger, after leading a march on Town Hall, ultimately prevailed; the jobs were restored.

When Bashwinger first became highway superintendent, Crosier had frequently praised the department at town board meetings. At that time, Bashwinger highlighted some of his initiatives for The Enterprise.

The highway garage was expanded by 800 square feet, built largely by the highway crew. Bashwinger also used inmates, for free, from the county jail’s release program to clear, over three months, a steep bank abutting the garage parking area.

About $10,000 worth of old plow blades were sold to the Port of Albany when metal prices were high, Bashwinger said, which paid for new gas and diesel pumps at the garage. Also, never-used equipment was sold, netting $14,000, he said.

The town used to pay $60 for a street sign, Bashwinger said, but he worked with the town of Guilderland and got them for the cost of the sign, $17 each, he said.




Kennedy, a Democrat backed by her own party, told The Enterprise this week that Becker’s death was a catalyst in her decision to run for office, something that she — a self-proclaimed political apatheist — never expected to do.

“I’ve never been into politics,” she said. “I never paid attention to it; I never associated with it. I’ve always done my civic duty and voted, but my grandfather always told me, ‘You register as a Democrat, but once you pull the curtain, you vote for who you think can do the job.’ And that’s the way I’ve always been.

“So, it wasn’t until the last four years that I started paying attention to everything that was going on, between roads not getting done right and everybody saying they’ve reached out and nobody will answer their questions about their driveways or culverts,” she continued. 

“And then my friend Peter Becker died,” she said, “and I think that sent me over the ridge, because I knew Randy was never there. He was always down in Albany [at the board of elections] and I’ve gone down so many times when they’re doing work on the road and there’s no flagmen, no signs that say ‘men working’ or ‘danger ahead.’”

She said that, eventually, she told herself, “OK, I’m done. I’ve had enough.”

“My grandfather taught me at a young age that, if you’re going to do something, you have to do it yourself,” she said. 

Kennedy, 61, lives in East Berne on a home-farm — one that was recently checked out by the sheriff’s office and found to be perfectly hospitable, following false accusations of animal abuse that gathered significant attention on social media — having retired from a career at General Electric, where she was a shift leader “in Building 273, where the generators and steam turbines were built,” she said. 

One of her duties was to manage the safety of the environment, she said, something that will be top-of-mind if she’s elected highway superintendent.

“When bosses up above us would say, ‘This job has to be done,’ if it wasn’t safe or we didn’t have the buddy system, or we felt that they were rushing the job, we would step in and call Safety down to investigate and have them decide if we were right or wrong,” Kennedy said of her work at G.E. 

Kennedy emphasized that teamwork was critical at G.E., which she said would be critical to her success as a highway superintendent. “First of all,” she said, “I’m going to work with my guys. I’m not going to go off and take another job for eight hours a day someplace else. I’m going to be there in the morning and we’re going to do the work details.

“We’re going to inspect all the vehicles before they leave the yard to make sure the brakes, the blinkers, the lights, and everything are functioning,” she continued. “We’re going to go through the shop and make sure that everyone who’s working in the shop … isn’t working alone. 

“When I give out assignments out on the roads,” she said, “I’m going to make sure that there are proper cones, a flag person set up if needed, and I’m going to be right there and if I have to leave — if I have another team of guys working somewhere else — I’m going to be checking in periodically to make sure the job is going how it’s supposed to go.”

Although Kennedy would replace Bashwinger if elected, she would be managing a crew that he built a strong rapport with. When asked how she would assert her authority as an opponent of the workers’ former boss, she acknowledged that they probably don’t want her to win, but that she has a plan ready if she does.

“I’ve heard through the grapevine that they don’t want me to win because they know I’m a workaholic,” Kennedy said. “I’m not going to sit by and say ‘We’re not going to do anything today,’ or whatever. But I’m not going to come in with an attitude, saying ‘You’re doing this, and you’re doing this, and if you don’t like it, so what?’ If I do win, we’re going to sit down in a room and lay all the cards out on the table.”

She said that she had to deal with a similar situation with the crew she oversaw at G.E., all of whom were men, and some of whom had been there longer than she had. “I don’t want them to hate me,” she said of the Berne highway workers. “In the first hour that I sit there, I just want them to know that we’re all there to make a living, we’re going to work together, we’re going to help each other out.” 

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