Berne candidates with opposing views claim to speak for residents

BERNE — Berne residents are looking at issues up on one of their highest hills and down underground this election season as four candidates are vying for two seats on the town board.

The two incumbents on the all-Democrat board — Karen Schimmer and Dawn Jordan — are touting the strides made in recent years, to open a senior center, lower tax rates, upgrade town facilities, and purchase a large piece of property meant to serve as parkland and an engine for the local economy. They both have Independence Party endorsement, as well as their own party.

On the Republican and Reform Party lines, Rick Otto and Sean S. Lyons are campaigning against the town’s major purchases, including the parkland on Game Farm Road, and they were both charged up by a gun-control law passed in 2013, which they pushed against.

Board members earn about $3,500 annually and serve four-year terms.

Also up for election are two assessor positions, unopposed this year as the two incumbents, Democrats Brian M. Crawford and Christine Valachovic, run again.

Close to half the registered voters in Berne are Democrats (892) while about a sixth (325) are Republicans. About a quarter (509) are unaffiliated, and the rest belong to small parties.

Candidates were asked these questions:

Dead spots: The topography of the Hilltowns has left some parts out of modern modes of communication that are needed for cellphone and emergency communications. Proposals to place towers in high elevations, would mean altering the views of that natural topography, causing some controversy over their placement. A proposal for a communications facility from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office is now before the Berne Planning Board.

Do you support the proposal for a cell tower on Jansen Lane?

—  Budget: The town's budget, now around $2.27 million, has raised taxes marginally, and, in recent years, lowered them, while the town has also made major purchases for highway-department equipment; upgrades to the library, senior center, town park, and town hall; and with a joint purchase of a large hilltop property on Game Farm Road.

Do you see these as positive steps and what other decisions do you think should be made to balance taxes and services?

—  Comprehensive plan: The town board is in the final stages of reviewing the comprehensive plan, which envisions the future of the town and guides decisions that can affect all residents. At the same time, the board has updated the town’s schedule of uses and looked at new laws to amend the zoning ordinance and allow for special types of low-impact businesses.

What changes, if any, should be made to the zoning ordinance?

Pipeline: A natural gas pipeline expansion has been proposed to cross upstate New York, including Albany County.

How do you feel about the pipeline coming through Berne, adding to existing lines, and what can you, as a town board member, do about it?



Sean Lyons



BERNE — With an outspoken record on gun rights and a dedication to veterans, Sean Lyons wants to take a government seat in the town where he has lived his whole life.

Lyons, a Berne-Knox-Westerlo graduate, grew up in West Berne and lives across the street from his parents' home. He said it's the heritage, family, and faith that make Berne special for him.

"It's a really great community and it's a beautiful place to live," said Lyons. "I don't think there's any place nicer than the town of Berne."

And yet its leaders, he says, have gone astray with some of its major decisions.

"In the people's view, I don't feel the town's purchases have been right for the town, especially the Game Farm Road purchase," Lyons said of the 350-acre park. "The purchasing of the St. Bernadette's [church] for the library I don't think was in the best interest of the people. I think we need referendums for such purchases so all the people can get involved. I'm very new to all this…but I believe people need to be involved in any purchase."

State law dictates that the representative model of government can only be bypassed by a referendum in special instances, as when a large bond resolution is passed by a town board.

Lyons added that he would support other board members on "common sense proposals" and oppose measures to "increase regulation, increase taxes, and just increase the burden onto the residents."

At 46, Lyons works as a maintenance manager at the Watervliet Arsenal. He volunteers organizing workers sorting goods at the Veterans Miracle Center in Albany and as an "Honor Flight guardian," taking veterans to see war memorials in the nation's capital.

He has been enrolled as a Democrat, but says he recently switched to the Republican Party.

He says he first became politically active after the passage of the state's Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, a gun-control law passed quickly in 2013 after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Lyons has organized rallies in the Hilltowns and at the state capitol building, gaining a reputation in what he called the "2-A" movement, made up of those who feel the Second Amendment is under threat.

Lyons said he was honored to be asked by Republicans and Conservatives if he would run for town council this election, and so he did.

"My father, who was town assessor in the ’80s, he always felt that I would be a political figure in town someday, only because I've always been outspoken," said Lyons.

He said he used to work on a rotating shift of volunteers, with his father, to deliver meals from food pantries to elderly, shut-in people when he was younger. He acknowledged the efforts already made to help the elderly in town — with the senior center's activities, meals, and transportation — but said veterans should be given similar opportunities.

"I do believe our veterans deserve as much care as our elderly," he said, adding that many people are in both categories.

Asked his views on planning and zoning in the town, Lyons said he is in favor of less government.

"I'm a firm believer that people, on their property, should be able to, if they want to, farm," said Lyons. "…I know the big feedback I'm getting from a lot of residents in the hamlet is livestock and stuff like that, because they're zoned historical, they would like to have chickens or things of that nature."

Discussing the budget, Lyons stressed that he would learn more after being elected.

"I believe, if the town is bursting with surplus, then I think our taxes are too high and we could reduce them that way," Lyons said of the budget. "Again, not having ever been at town budget meetings, I'm really at a disadvantage."

On Bradt Hollow Road, Lyons says he and his neighbors get no cell service. He supports a tower on Jansen Lane. "Even our landlines are suspect. We have Verizon working on our landlines everyday of every week just about. We are definitely in a huge dead spot," he said.

Lyons said the visual impact of the towers could be minimized with the right placement, and wouldn't affect all views in the town. He added, "if we need, two or three [towers] just to cover everyday, I would support that."



Dawn Jordan



BERNE — Regardless of the outcome Nov. 3, Democrat Dawn Jordan says she will still go to town board meetings every month.

She has volunteered in Berne throughout her life, as a mother and more recently with the town's government, on its planning board and as chair of a committee to research high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

Jordan, 54, won an election last year in which she ran against one of this year's candidates, Rick Otto, for one year on the town board. She was originally appointed following the resignation of Bonnie Conklin, the only Republican on the board, at the end of 2013.

"It's the service to the town," Jordan said of her desire to continue on the board. "I've always done something that's service to others, whether it's church involvement — I taught at Helderberg Christian School.  This is just another branch of that, another away for me to give something back to a town that I have spent most of my life in."

During her two years on the town board, Jordan is proud of her role as Youth Council liaison. She has worked on the town's annual Summerfest in the town park, as well as upgrades to the town park's playground equipment. She said the council has pending a shared services agreement with the town of Knox Youth Council.

"Everything like that saves money, and it allows you you have a little bit more to do something else with," said Jordan. She said such scrutiny of the ways that money has been spent, the grant money used in the town, and the town's latest accounting software have all helped lower taxes in recent years. "Everybody's happy when taxes go down," she said of the general outlook on recent changes in Berne.

"The zoning was adopted in 1972," she said. "There's a lot of uses that have come to the forefront that weren't even thought of at that point." Jordan was on the planning board as recent revisions to the schedule of uses in the town's zoning law were first drafted, which are now before the town board. She said decisions in zoning are about asking what is appropriate and "what the people want."

"That is the balance that needs to be struck and there's obviously some things lacking," she said of rural character and economic activity.

Jordan said she would rather wait for the Albany County Sheriff's Office to produce the detailed information requested by the planning board before knowing whether or not she would support the communications tower proposal.

"Obviously there is a need and I totally see for safety's sake, our residents safety sake we need to do something to close that gap," said Jordan, whose husband has served on the Helderberg Rescue Squad.

"Of course, there is a concern of viewscapes, and property values, and things like that," she added. "Both of those things have to be considered."

Underground, Jordan said, the town may be very limited in what it can do about a gas pipeline expansion that affects property owners, but it's trying to keep people aware and informed.

"I made phone call after phone call after phone call, and so did the town clerk, to get maps," so residents could see where the extension was planned, she said.

The conservation advisory council has walked the pipeline and made an inventory of the wetlands and plant and animal species in the area; it was submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates utility pipelines.



Rick Otto



BERNE — In his third run for the town board, Republican Rick Otto wants to address what he deems a lack of judgement on the town board.

Retired from working in communications for the New York City Fire Department, Otto has lived in Berne for the past 10 years. He has worked as an advocate for special-needs students in public schools and is now a member of the zoning board of appeals.

“The thing that stimulated me was the town board’s refusal to get involved in the anti-SAFE Act movement,” Otto, 68, said, referring to the state’s gun-control law, as the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act. “All we asked for was a resolution saying we didn’t go along with it and the town board refused to.” The board passed a resolution in 2014 condemning the hurried process used to pass the law after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Otto has regularly attended town board meetings since he first ran for office in 2013. As now, he was concerned about zoning regulations that were too strictly written or interpreted. He feels, for instance, that lakeside properties, with their odd and small shapes, should be allowed variances for simple home projects.

Otto believes the towns’ ability to reduce taxes indicates that it has far too much money.

“One of the first things that should be done is to bring the taxes in line with projected expenses so we don’t wind up with surpluses,” said Otto. “If you want money from the people,  have a referendum. We’ll vote you more money.”

According to state law, town governments are essentially representative. Referendums are allowed only in certain cases, and they cannot be held at the discretion of a town.

Still, Otto said, many people want to be more involved.

“I would like to pass a town law that says everybody has to register and everybody has to vote,” he said. “I’m sure that would be a no-no as well, but what we have now is the system is not working because many people are being taxed off the Hill.” Similarly, he would like to post videos of town meetings online, so residents can watch.

Regarding the town’s recent programs and purchases, Otto said the town could be thinking more about untapped opportunities, like using space in the Knox Town Hall for a library, or programs for the elderly.

“We don’t need to accumulate these crown jewels that then cost us these extra funds,” he said of the town’s property.

Coming from the communications field, Otto said he turned on his radios when he first moved to Berne and found it was dead silence.

“That’s great if we can finally get the Hilltowns out of the Dark Ages,” Otto said of the proposed communications facility on Jansen Lane. “I’m all for it.”

In more routine zoning issues, Otto feels the process can be demeaning. He thinks a subset of the zoning board should first make a determination of whether or not a variance request requires the more extensive review that is typical of the board.

Otto said a gas pipeline runs through his farmland.

“It appeared to be one of those necessary ills that we have to put up with,” Otto said, having spoken with his neighbors about the existing pipeline. “I really don’t have a problem with the pipeline coming through here.” Otto added that the town should require monitoring and testing for water quality before and after blasting.

Such a law has recently been passed by the Albany County legislature.



Karen Schimmer           



BERNE — Councilwoman Karen Schimmer, a Democrat, is smitten with Berne.

She moved to the town from Newbury Port, Massachusetts 33 years ago and is now retired from The Albany Academy, where she was a teacher and librarian.

Working on the town board for the past four years, and, recently, knocking on doors campaigning, she says she is even more grateful to live in the town.

"I'm running because I really enjoy the job," Schimmer said. "I enjoy exploring the issues. I enjoy trying to resolve issues. I've spent my life working with children and families."

Schimmer, 68, is the board's liaison to the committee now planning for the town's newly purchased parkland on Game Farm Road, as well as the conservation advisory council, where she has followed the regulatory process of the natural gas pipeline extension that is planned to cross upstate New York, including Albany County.

"I also have projects that i'm interested in seeing completed," Schimmer said of her second run for a council seat. "One of them being renovations to the town park. When I drive by and I see the safety surfacing under the swings, it makes me feel very good I had a part in that, and to make it better for the people."

Another goal of hers is working on the Game Farm Road property, as its fledgling committee is hammering out a strategic plan, she said, which would outline initiatives, an action plan, revenue, and expenses.

"It's assumptions at this point, but it's assumptions based on the background they have," said Schimmer, noting some of the people who volunteered to work on the project have backgrounds in parks, business, and accounting.

Asked how such assumptions factored into the vote to purchase the property, Schimmer said the town board and the Albany County Resource Corporation saw its long-term economic potential, and it was also purchased for education, recreation, and in order to preserve a unique parcel in the town. The two entities purchased the property along with the Open Space Institute.

On the budget, Schimmer said Berne has several things going for it: a dogged supervisor and accountant, use of grant money to offset the expenditure from the town budget, and use of a sophisticated accounting software offered by the county comptroller's office.

The town’s library, in a recently renovated former church, was made possible with a mixture of money from the town, the state, and volunteer fundraising. Its hours have also expanded.  “That's an essential,” she said.

Schimmer said the town board has gone through the comprehensive plan, line by line, identifying provisions that might be too difficult to enforce or require clarification. She stressed the importance of such a guiding document, as the town board looked at expanding opportunity for small business while trying to uphold the high value placed by residents on the environment.

With the proposal for a communications tower before the planning board, she pointed to a similar weighing of the environmental concerns, with views, and safety concerns.

“I have not yet seen the proposal, and really almost can't comment on it until I do see it,” she said. Schimmer added that she would expect a detailed site plan, a visual analysis, and ask questions, like whether it is possible to co-locate services, or if the site would produce emissions.

 “There's always a balance,” said Schimmer. “In this case, the tower itself is important to the well being of our residents. It supports incident management.”

Schimmer said residents are very concerned about the pipeline expansion.

“There are some homes where we were campaigning, where the gas line is nearly at their front door,” she said, calling it a potentially volatile situation. She asked, rhetorically, what will happen if the pipe leaks, suggesting a protocol for evacuation and addressing the leak should be in place.

“We, the residents of our town, are going to be the individuals who are going to absorb the risk of these pipelines while not reaping any of the benefits,” she said.

Schimmer said an inventory of the land along the pipeline that was taken by the conservation advisory board could act as a basis for compensation, should a problem occur. She said it may consider long-term monitoring of erosion and water quality at designated sites along the pipeline.









More Hilltowns News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.