Berne road eval alleged political by GOP highway super 

Enterprise File Photo -- H. Rose Schneider

Councilman Joel Willsey seated at the dais during a meeting.

BERNE — As debate swirls around an objective evaluation of town roads, claims have resurfaced that Randy Bashwinger — the town’s highway superintendent and GOP chairman — purposely sabotaged another outside evaluation process.

A consultant hired by the town in September said this week that Bashwinger didn’t meet his statutory requirements so the budget evaluation he was hired to do could not be completed. 

Councilman Joel Willsey, a Democrat and former employee of the State Department of Transportation, called for an engineering evaluation at the December town board meeting, which Bashwinger said is “absolutely, 100-percent” a political attack.

Democrats have held a majority on the board for decades. In 2020, Willsey will be the sole Democrat.

On Sept. 11, Supervisor Sean Lyons, a Republican, Councilwoman Karen Schimmer and Councilwoman Dawn Jordan, both Democrats, met with municipal consultant Michael Richardson, who was called in to do what he described as “reality-based budgeting.”

Richardson explained to The Enterprise this week that many small towns use “incremental budgeting,” where numbers from prior years are carried over and rough changes are made based on general predictions. 

“It’s an awful, awful practice,” Richardson said, “but it happens all too often.”

Reality-based budgeting, however, is a ground-up approach that relies on specific predictions from department heads about costs they will incur during the upcoming year.

According to Jordan, Richardson could not make a determination for the highway department because Bashwinger “refused to cooperate.”

“It seems that Randy sees any constructive criticism of his department as a political move, which is ridiculous,” Jordan told The Enterprise this week.

“That is total bulls--t from the three amigos,” Bashwinger responded through The Enterprise, referencing the three Democratic board members. “I told them I was paving shortly after the meeting, which ended up being weeks. I have been in as Highway Superintendent since 2015, and 2019 was the first time I met [the consultant]. He didn’t contact me once via phone nor email ever.”

However, the consultant, Richardson, told The Enterprise this week that it was Bashwinger’s responsibility to provide cost estimates to the supervisor, who would eventually work those estimates into the tentative budget.

“[Bashwinger] didn’t even do that,” Richardson said. “He didn’t complete his statutory requirements.”

“For him to say there was a failure to contact him —,” Richardson said, “There should be a recording of a meeting where [Bashwinger] was there and it was understood that he would contact me.”

When asked whether Bashwinger was cooperative, Richardson was nonplussed.

“What’s the word you use for, ‘Not at all?’” he said, adding that Supervisor Lyons also provided “virtually no cooperation.”

Richardson, 67, said it was the only time he’s experienced resistance from a town that’s contracted his services in the many years he’s been a municipal consultant.

“There’s no political agenda here,” Richardson said of his budget consultation. “The only agenda is to get the numbers right.”

Lyons told The Enterprise earlier that the adopted 2020 budget features sharper predictions than years prior, ultimately allowing for a decrease in taxes, but did not mention Richardson by name.

Road evaluation

The new evaluation proposal is an attempt to bring outside perspective on a road system that Willsey has raised issue with since his election to the board in 2017.

“This is an area of expertise [Willsey has] that I don’t have,” Democratic Councilwoman Dawn Jordan told The Enterprise. “He worked there for something like 30 years and has engineering experience.”

For the Department of Transportation, Willsey has been an engineer technician, drafter, and project designer, and he has reviewed bridge and highway designs in quality control, he said.

In a slideshow document sent to The Enterprise and presented to the town board at its monthly meeting [online at altamontenterprise.com], Willsey seeks an engineer who would “make recommendations regarding planning, scheduling, and order of operations to best accommodate work zone safety, project quality and responsible funding in CHIPS funded highway work projects under the consultation of an engineer …” 

In the document, Willsey spells out specific issues he sees in Berne roads, with considerable attention given to overlay widths. 

“It appears that Long Rd was widened onto the shoulders with an inadequately thin lift in some segments and in a manner similar to … Stage Rd …,” reads a slide in the document. “The thin asphalt in the widened travel lane failed prematurely. Drivers often crowd on-coming traffic when avoiding these raveling shoulders so this overlay failure creates a safety hazard.”

“Now as far as road safety and his 30th slideshow that he has submitted about Long Road,” Bashwinger told The Enterprise in an email, writing hyperbolically, “we spend a lot of money to do patching and if one area was missed I would like to thank Mr. Willsey for pointing it out … My opinion on this engineering is that it is a waste of money to the tax payers, and yes I do value safety.”

Schimmer told The Enterprise in an email that the decision to consult an engineer should not reflect poorly on the highway department.

“We would not expect the Superintendent of Highways to have the same expertise that an engineer, who has extensive training and experience building and rehabilitating highways, does,” Schimmer wrote.

While tensions between the board and highway department reached a peak during budget season, Willsey and Bashwinger have long been personal rivals — Bashwinger chalks it up to politics while Willsey says it’s about competency — with Willsey raising numerous complaints about Bashwinger and the highway department in letters to the Enterprise editor. 

The most pointed was a letter regarding a minivan that crashed into an approximately 8-foot-deep excavation on Bridge Road, and was a total loss.

Willsey pointed out that there were no flaggers or barricades at the site of the hole. In defending himself, Bashwinger claimed that the driver, Joann Hotaling, admitted fault in the accident. Hotaling adamantly told The Enterprise that she did not admit fault.

“I just want to say, I hope they learned their lesson,” Hotaling said, of the highway department.

Bashwinger, meanwhile, has orchestrated a number of investigations into Willsey’s conduct.

“I have been under near-continuous investigation by the Berne GOP since summer 2017 when I announced I was running for the town board,” Willsey told The Enterprise in October, citing two investigations that concluded allegations of misconduct were made “without merit.”

The latest investigation began in September, after Republican Councilman Dennis Palow, a veteran, filed a discrimination complaint against Willsey, who expressed concerns for his own safety following comments Palow made at a board meeting that Willsey considered threatening. The investigation is ongoing.

“It is all GOP harassment,” Willsey told The Enterprise at the time.

While the highway department seems like an unusual arena for political differences to play out, Bashwinger attributes the clash to his figurehead status.

“People don’t recognize me as head of the highway department so much as they recognize me as chair of the GOP in Berne,” Bashwinger said.

 “The town of Berne has dominantly been Democratic for, as far as we can tell, a long, long time ago,” Bashwinger said. “But the tides are changing.”

In November, the two GOP nominees for the Berne town board, Bonnie Conklin and Matthew Harris, beat out the two Democrats, Brian Bunzey and Frank Brady. Conklin and Harris will replace Democrats Jordan and Karen Schimmer; neither sought re-election. Come January, Willsey will be the sole Democrat on the town board. 

“With the new board members being sworn in in a couple weeks, I am sure the majority focus will shift from the Highway department to more important town business,” Lyons wrote to The Enterprise in an email. 

“It could be nixed,” Willsey said of the proposal, but added that “[Supervisor] Sean [Lyons] is supportive of it.” Willsey reiterated his claim that Lyons supports the proposal in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week.

In a letter written in response to Willsey’s, Lyons claimed that the assertion is unfounded.

“I am not sure of what Mr. Willsey’s intent is,” Lyons wrote, “but under no circumstances do I agree with or support anything that Mr. Willsey states … ”

The letter concludes with a sweeping praise for Bashwinger, calling his performance as highway superintendent “exemplary.”

At a special meeting held on Nov. 7, the Berne Town Board — minus Palow, who was absent — voted to consult with Lamont Engineers to find a suitable engineer to evaluate existing highway projects. According to the minutes, Lyons cast the sole vote against the motion.

But in an email provided to The Enterprise by Willsey, dated Sep. 5, 2018, Lyons expressed support for outside consultation for issues with Berne roads.

“Joel,” Lyons wrote at the time, “it is my opinion that these allegations against the Highway Department are serious and need to be validated by an outside, independent source, and then decisions can be made on how to best fund/implement the remedies.”

Lyons went on to request that the highway liaison at the time reach out to the Cornell Local Roads Program, an organization that assists and trains road officials, for consultation. Willsey told The Enterprise he was not aware of any action following the consultation.

“This recent proposal takes this initiative to identify and address work zone practices that concern me to the next logical step and I think the Supervisor recognizes the need,” Willsey said.

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