Palow files complaint, wants Willsey removed from town board

Councilman Joel Willsey

Enterprise File Photo -- H. Rose Schneider

Councilman Joel Willsey seated at the dais during a meeting.

BERNE — Deputy Supervisor Dennis Palow, a Republican, announced at the Oct. 8 town board meeting that he has filed a discrimination complaint against fellow councilmember Joel Willsey, a Democrat. 
“I’m hoping for [Willsey] to be removed from the town board for everything he’s said and done to me,” Palow told The Enterprise.

The complaint, made to Supervisor Sean Lyons, the other Republican on the five-member board, and town attorney William Conboy, states that Willsey discriminated against Palow as a veteran in emails sent back and forth among members of the board. 

On Aug. 13, Willsey wrote in an email that Palow made a threat against him at the July board meeting when Palow told him in an  aggravated tone that he “had something” for him and it would “happen right here [in the town hall].” 

In subsequent emails, Willsey expressed concern for “the potential of a PTSD situation,” and suggested that Palow “made it clear he is a capable killer,” in an unverified email where Palow informed Willsey of his combat tours. 

Lyons had canceled the regularly-scheduled August meeting because of security concerns, he said at the time. The three Democratic board members did not attend the rescheduled August meeting on the 28th, because they said they felt unsafe without a metal detector. The packed meeting, with many veteran supporters from out of town, served a rally for Palow who read pieces from the emails.

On Sept. 11 of this year, the three Democrats on the board — Joel Willsey, Karen Schimmer, and Dawn Jordan — voted unanimously at a meeting the Republican board members did not attend to install a metal detector at the Berne Town Hall and forbid town officials from carrying weapons while meetings are in session. 

According to Palow, the town’s employee handbook states that the town is an equal-opportunity employer and that it “does not unlawfully discriminate on the basis of a person’s race, religion, color, sex, age, national origin, marital status, pregnancy, veteran status, arrest/conviction record, disability, genetic predisposition, or carrier status, sexual orientation, or any other protected class or status.”

 The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, with laws that protect citizens in defined classes from employment abuse, describes protected veterans as being those “who served during a war or in a campaign or expedition for which a campaign badge has been authorized.” Palow said he served in Iraq and Afghanistan on the front lines.

Palow also claimed that Willsey violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects people’s right to medical privacy, by making public his speculation that Palow may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or symptoms of PTSD, but did not file a complaint. Palow told The Enterprise that he is “waiting to see what’s going to happen with the town [investigation]” before considering filing a HIPAA complaint. 

When The Enterprise asked Palow earlier if he’d suffered from PTSD, he responded it wasn’t anyone’s business but his and his doctor’s. 

Supervisor Lyons was the first to share the emails, labeled in the subject line by Willsey as “CONFIDENTIAL,” and did so with conservative talk-radio host Melody Burns. Palow read from parts of the emails at the Aug. 28 meeting.

Willsey wrote to the Enterprise in a text this week that he was unaware if Palow did or did not suffer from PTSD. “I have no idea what his actual issues are and never said he had any specific problem,” Willsey said. “I speculated about some possible scenarios that could explain his behavior in a series of confidential emails.”

Palow told The Enterprise he made the discrimination complaint “before Sept. 8,” and that independent counsel will be hired to investigate the claims. Willsey was not aware of Palow’s complaint before it was announced at the Oct. 8 meeting, nor were the other two Democraticboard members, Schimmer and Jordan. 

Willsey wrote to The Enterprise in a text that this complaint is one more salvo from the GOP in what he portrays as a campaign of harassment, and that the complaint deals with “selected words from confidential emails totally out of context.”

Palow acknowledged that tensions between he and Willsey were high immediately after beginning their first term together in 2017. Palow accused Willsey of “going after” Randy Bashwinger, Berne’s highway superintendent and chair of the Berne GOP, in town board meetings and letters to the Enterprise editor.

“Since summer 2017, the Berne GOP plan [to] push me out of office has been threats, name-calling, taunts, Facebook falsehoods,” Willsey wrote, “and of course all these ridiculous investigations.”  

Willsey has been investigated at least three times since he’s taken office. One investigation was based on Willsey’s use of the word “erection,” in an email, in reference to the installation of large campaign signs. Another investigation was initiated after Palow accused Willsey of “getting in my face” with an extended index finger while in Supervisor Lyons’s office.

Associate attorney Benjamin D. Heffley, of Roemer Wallens Gold & Mineaux, who, according to Willsey, handles the town’s investigations, could not be reached for comment before press time. 

“I was saddened by Mr. Palow’s announcement,” wrote councilmember Schimmer in an email to The Enterprise. “Accusations such as this undermine the ability of the Town Board to work cooperatively. It creates a hostile environment that disrupts Town business, and creates an atmosphere focused on interpersonal relationships rather than the needs of the Town’s residents.”

Schimmer went on to say that investigations, which are required any time a complaint is filed against a public official, are long, costly processes, and asked if a civil discussion wouldn’t be a better way forward. 

But Palow says the complaint is necessary.

“At this point — after dealing with [Willsey] for two years, going after Bashwinger and residents — I wouldn’t accept his apology,” Palow told The Enterprise, referencing letters critical of Bashwinger submitted to the Enterprise editor over the course of the past few years by Willsey. 

The letters largely focused on road safety regulations that Willsey, a long-time State Department of Transportation employee, said aren’t being properly followed. 

“You are a disgrace,” Bashwinger wrote in a lengthy Facebook post directed at Willsey, which Willsey said was in response to a letter he sent to the Enterprise editor in April of this year. “The biggest cry baby and you need a pacifier with some wipes to go along with the diaper you wear.”

At the Oct. 8 meeting, Willsey rejected the charge that he discriminated against Palow on the basis of his veteran status, and denied referring to him as a capable killer, among other things, and stressed that his concerns center around specific behaviors. 

“[Willsey] can say all he wants,” Palow told The Enterprise, “but to deny any of it when we have the emails … is just lies.”

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