Berne Town Board names Martin to planning board

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

The Berne Planning Board has experienced significant tumult this year, with the illegal removal of one member who was later reinstated; a plan to expand the board from five members to seven, which was later scrapped because of public backlash; a discovery that the 50-year-old board had never been legally established because of a clerical error; and, most recently, a mid-term resignation.

BERNE — At its Oct. 14 regular meeting, the Berne Town Board voted, 4 to 0, to appoint business-owner Joe Martin to the town planning board. Martin will occupy a vacancy left by Todd Schwendeman, who announced his resignation from the board last month. The term expires at the end of 2022.

In the same motion, the town board also appointed Pat Safford as an alternate member of the planning board. Planning board alternates have the same attendance requirements as full members and the same salary, but can vote only when a full member has a conflict of interest. 

Councilman Mathew Harris, who is the planning board liaison, abstained from the vote because he hadn’t had a chance to speak with either Martin or Safford. 

“Mr. Martin is a smart, successful business owner with a willingness to get involved with and work in his community,” Supervisor Sean Lyons told The Enterprise. “Mr. Safford has the same qualities and had asked to only be considered as an alternate.” 

Martin and Safford were the only candidates the board could select from, Lyons said, as a third candidate withdrew his name due to lack of availability.

Lyons confirmed for The Enterprise that the third candidate was not Thomas Spargo, a former State Supreme Court justice and convicted felon whom the town board had controversially appointed to the planning board on Jan. 1, only for the State Supreme Court to reverse the appointment two months later. 

“I did not expect to see Mr. Spargo apply,” Lyons told The Enterprise. “Of course I would have liked him to, but his reasons are his and I respect that.”

Spargo could not be reached for comment.

On Jan. 1, the town board had also named Spargo chairman of the planning board, despite the planning board’s unanimous recommendation that Schwendeman be named chairman. Schwendeman has since moved out of town.

To make room for Spargo’s appointment, the town board had demoted planning board member Emily Vincent to alternate status, which the court determined in March to be a violation of New York State Town Law after Vincent filed an Article 78, challenging the town’s decision. 

State law prohibits the removal of a planning board member before the expiration of his or her term and, while the town asserted that changing her title from full member to alternate was not a removal, Vincent successfully argued that the loss of voting rights amounted to a removal from her original position.

Residents, and all other members of the planning board, had been upset by Spargo’s appointment in part because of his conviction in 2009 for bribery and extortion. Spargo had been sentenced to 27 months in prison.

After Spargo’s removal from the planning board, the town board had been given ample opportunity to re-appoint him. First was a plan to expand the planning board from five to seven members, which led to the discovery that the 50-year-old planning board had never been legally established, meaning that the town board could build an all-new seven-member planning board. 

In a series of moves that surprised some residents, the town board decided to establish the planning board exactly as it had been and abandoned its expansion plans.

Lyons told The Enterprise that the town board’s thinking was: “This is kind of getting out of hand. Let’s bring this back in. Let’s just get back to what we had.”

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