Berne’s uncertified code-enforcement officer tried to evict occupants from their home

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

The property at 50 Stage Road shows clear signs of neglect, but it’s not known what prompted the town’s uncertified code-enforcement officer to try to evict the occupants of the building.

Berne’s code-enforcement officer, who is not certified, left an order to vacate on the door of the house at 50 Stage Road, a dilapidated property inhabited by George and Michael Stempel. 

Even if Townsend were certified, it does not appear legal for a Berne code-enforcement officer to evict inhabitants from their homes, as that authority is not granted by town law.

County assessment rolls list the property, owned by Patrick Stempel, with a full-market value of $55,556. Patrick, George, and Michael Stempel are brothers.

It’s not known what exactly is wrong with the property, as neither Townsend, Supervisor Sean Lyons, nor Building Inspector James Bushnell could be reached for comment despite multiple attempts. 

Patrick Stempel told The Enterprise he had “no idea” what the issues were and declined to comment further, saying he “didn’t want to start any trouble.” 

George Stempel, who, like Patrick, declined to answer most Enterprise questions, said that a second town official came to the house to take back the order to vacate. It is not known with certainty who this second official was.

An order to vacate is a remedial procedure that code-enforcement officers can be authorized to carry out by each municipality in New York State that agrees to enforce the state’s Uniform Code, but the Berne law that establishes the office of code-enforcement officer does not appear to grant this power to its own code-enforcement officer, nor does any subsequent law.

“While there are numerous sections within the Uniform Code that relate to ‘unsafe structures’ and when to post or placard an unsafe structure with a ‘do not occupy’ notice,” a Department of State spokesperson told The Enterprise in an email, “ … the local government’s code enforcement program established through local law, ordinance, or regulation provides the authority for the local government to administer and enforce such provisions.”

Sections 91-2 and 91-3 of the Berne codebook, which deal with unsafe buildings, state that a code enforcement officer can issue an order to repair or remove the unsafe structure, but does not go beyond those measures.

The law states that the owner must be informed they have 30 days to repair the structure and 60 days to remove it, and in failure to do so, “the Town will proceed to secure or remove the structure or building and that the land on which said structure or building is located will be assessed for all costs and expense incurred by the Town in connection with the proceedings to remove or secure, including the cost of actually removing said structure or building.”

The notice given to the occupant must also provide a “date, time and place of a hearing before the Town Board at which hearing the owner or other person specified in §91-5A may appear to show cause why the notice and resolution of the Town Board should be rescinded, extended or modified and such other relevant and material information as such owner or other person may desire.”

The Enterprise confirmed this week that Townsend left the eviction notice at 50 Stage Road on Nov. 17, seven days after The Enterprise published a story about Townsend’s lack of certification, meaning that Townsend and other town officials knew by then that Townsend had no authority as a code-enforcement officer. 

Since the publication of that story on Nov. 10, the Berne Town Board has convened twice, once for a regular meeting and once for a budget hearing, but the board has yet to publicly acknowledge the issue. 

“My silence towards you should not reflect inaction by myself or the board,” Lyons wrote to The Enterprise in an email on Nov. 24, responding to questions about whether the board is ignoring the issue. “My silence should indicate myself and the board are not ready to make any public comment, yet. 

“When we have facts and conclusions all lined up,” Lyons wrote, “we will handle this or any situation to the best of our abilities in a timeline we think best for the town and the residents we represent.”

Though the board continues to seek information, the state Uniform Code is straightforward about officials who lack certification and the towns that employ them.

The law states that “a person whose certification has been designated as inactive … materially fails to uphold his or her code enforcement duties” and the certification shall be subject to “suspension or revocation.” 

It goes on to say that “a person whose certification has been designated inactive is not a certified building safety inspector,” and that “it is a violation … for an authority having jurisdiction to allow a person whose certification has been designated as inactive to perform enforcement activities.”

Townsend was appointed on Jan. 1, 2020 by a town board with a newly elected GOP-backed majority.

Townsend had previously served as code-enforcement officer for Berne in 2018 and into early 2019, when he resigned because of frustrations with the town board, then with a majority of Democrats, which had declined to increase the number of hours he worked for the town.

Townsend was certified for that stretch of time, but the Department of State confirmed for The Enterprise last month that he had not completed any of the required in-service training in 2019 (which would retain his certification for 2020) or — as of November — in 2020 (which would retain his certification for 2021). 

The 2021 town budget outlines a substantial salary increase for the code-enforcement officer in 2021, jumping from $32,500 this year to $40,300 — a 24-percent increase.

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