Berne board goes Republican

Bonnie Conklin

Bonnie Conklin

Mathew Harris

Mathew Harris

BERNE — The Berne Town Board, which has been dominated by Democrats for decades, will soon have three Republican council members as well as a Republican supervisor.

With the two Democratic incumbent councilwomen not seeking re-election, the race was wide open.

On Tuesday, the two GOP nominees — Bonnie Conklin, a Conservative, and Mathew Harris, an Independence Party member — came out on top, defeating the two Democrats.

Conklin got the most votes, 628, close to 32 percent. Harris came in next with  574 votes, just over 29 percent.

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.

This is part of a larger trend. While Democratic enrollment far outweighs Republican enrollment, Hilltowns that went for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 went for Donald Trump in 2016. Both Knox and Westerlo in 2017 and again in this election have seen GOP-backed candidates dominating (see related stories).

Many controversial Berne Town Board votes in the last two years have fallen along party lines, with the Democrats winning, 3 to 2. 

Now Joel Willsey, who was elected two years ago, will be the sole Democrat on the board.

Conklin, who works as a teachers’ aid at her alma mater, Berne-Knox-Westerlo, had served part of a term on the town board before. She campaigned with a number of specific goals.

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

Conklin also said one of her campaign messages was: “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.

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.

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 said during her campaign, “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.

Harris said he was running 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 moved to Berne four years ago. A Navy veteran, Harris has retired from his career with the Department of Defense as an electrical engineer, working with the Army Research Laboratory.

Democrats Brian Bunzey and Frank Brady had just the Democratic line. Bunzey got 401 votes or just over 20 percent while Brady got 363 votes, over 18 percent.

Conklin and Harris both garnered votes on the Conservative, Independence, and Working Families party lines.

Bunzey, a lifelong Berne resident, has wanted to see the town prosper with more events. Brady, who ran two years ago on the GOP line and lost the race by just one vote, had garnered 617 votes in 2017.

Two of Berne’s three assessors — Brian Crawford and Christine Valachovic — were unopposed for re-election. Valachovic, a Democrat, was endorsed by her own party and also had the Republican, Conservative, and Working Families party lines. She got 916 votes, more than 53 percent. Crawford, also a Democrat, had his own party line as well as on the Conservative line. He got 788 votes, just over 46 percent.

Berne has 2,120 registered voters; 41 percent (879) are Democrats;  21 percent (446) are Republican, and 24 percent (523) are unaffiliated; the rest belong to small parties.


More Hilltowns News

  • An audit report published by the Office of the State Comptroller asserts that the Berne Town Board “exceeded its authority” when it allowed the supervisor to pay bills without prior town board review, and that this resulted in sorely inaccurate financial records. Critically, though, it found no evidence of misappropriation.

  • Rick Rapp, of Bush Drive, in Berne, gave a presentation to the town board about how poorly recent renovations to his road were despite his warning both the board and the highway superintendent, Randy Bashwinger, about their process. Rapp has a background in construction. 

  • Bonnie Conklin

    Berne Town Board member Bonnie Conklin, a conservative backed by the GOP, stepped down from her position this week, citing political tensions in a letter to the Enterprise editor.

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