Councilman Willsey calls on Berne leadership to step down; Councilwoman Conklin breaks rank

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer
The Berne Town Board on New Year’s Day 2020 made appointments that have haunted it all year. From right, Councilman Joel Willsey, the lone Democrat; new Councilman Mathew Harris; Supervisor Sean Lyons; new Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin; and Councilman Dennis Palow.

BERNE — A year’s worth of legal and moral controversies in Berne have culminated in two dramatic rebukes of the town board’s operation since it came squarely under GOP control in January, highlighting cracks in what appeared earlier this year to be an iron-clad regime.

The first is from Councilman Joel Willsey, the town board’s lone Democrat and a frequent critic of his GOP-backed colleagues. He ramped up his criticisms this week by demanding in an email that Supervisor Sean Lyons and Deputy Supervisor Dennis Palow, both Republicans, resign from office, each with a year left on his term, after attacking them for what appears to be a deliberate attempt to mislead the public about the manner in which this year’s town government appointments were decided. 

The second, and most surprising, is from Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin — a Conservative who was endorsed by the GOP when she was elected to office last November. Conklin made a motion at the board’s Dec. 9 meeting that would have granted residents the opportunity to speak at each of the board’s monthly meetings instead of every other meeting, a policy that had been introduced this year by Lyons and supported by all the GOP-backed members of the board, Conklin included.

Tangentially, Conklin also seconded a motion made by Willsey at the Dec. 9 meeting to advertise for a new town attorney, and voted in favor of it. The three remaining board members voted nay.

The vote came after the town board’s current attorney, Javid Afzali, sent a blistering letter to the planning board chairman, Michael Vincent, accusing him of distributing a letter critical of the town board to the media, which he hadn’t done. Afzali spent a portion of the next planning board meeting engaged in a largely petty debate with planning board member Larry Zimmerman, who, like Vincent, was concerned that the town board illegally circumvented planning board review of a proposed law.

While none of these actions are likely to have any bureaucratic effect — Conklin and Willsey’s motions failed after the three remaining GOP-backed members voted against them, and it’s improbable that Palow or Lyons will resign over an issue that’s been brought up regularly since January — together they carry symbolic heft, with Conklin in particular receiving praise from residents, through letters to the Enterprise editor this week, who have strongly criticized the party she rose to office with. 


Willsey demands resignation

Willsey’s demand that Lyons and Palow resign stems primarily from frustrations Willsey has expressed in the past over the various appointments that were and weren’t made at the town’s reorganizational meeting on Jan. 1, the same day Conklin and Republican Mathew Harris were sworn in, suggesting to Willsey that Lyons and Palow determined the appointments themselves.

“The two of you,” Willsey wrote this week to Lyons and Palow, “disrupt town operations creeping around in the dark making unilateral decisions that impact residents, volunteers and appointees and then you both lie about it … I am requesting that you two step down from town office for the betterment of our town and the safety of our residents, employees and the traveling public.”

In his email, Willsey provided documentation of the alleged lies.

One email is from Lyons, who, in January, emailed Timothy Doherty, a Youth Council volunteer who was not reappointed despite there being no replacement. Lyons wrote that the decision was made by the town board after a town board evaluation. 

However, neither Willsey nor his two Democrat-backed colleagues in 2019 — neither of whom sought re-election for terms beginning in 2020 — were present for any kind of performance evaluation. Though Willsey on New Year’s Day had voted in favor of the single resolution that made the dozens of appointments, he has since said that he didn’t receive an agenda ahead of the meeting despite specific requests for one, and that an ocular migraine during the meeting prevented him from both seeing and analyzing the list.

“I was overwhelmed by the motions,” Willsey told The Enterprise this week. “I had no time to review … I became aware that I probably made a mistake voting for the appointments and voted against the funding.” 

The second lie Willsey is referring to is from Palow, who told Willsey through email in January, “Also, just because you weren’t part of the discussion doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It doesn’t matter when and where the discussion happened, the other board members were in favor of not appointing Tim [Doherty].”

Again, no board members other than Lyons and Palow were aware of any concerns over Doherty’s tenure on the Youth Council, unless Palow in the email is referring to Conklin and Harris as board members when they hadn’t yet taken office. 

Under New York State’s Open Meetings Law, it is illegal for a board majority — in this case, 3 out of 5 members — to meet outside of a public forum or duly called executive session so as to ensure transparency in government. 

Neither Lyons nor Palow could be reached for comment.

At least two of the board’s appointments this year were illegal. Chance Townsend was named code-enforcement officer despite a lack of certification. And Thomas Spargo, a convicted felon and disbarred lawyer, formerly a New York State Supreme Court Justice, was appointed as the planning board’s chairman only after the town board illegally demoted another planning board member to an alternate position, which a state Supreme Court justice ruled against in March.

It’s highly likely that the board’s dismissal of its dog-control officer, Cheryl Baitsholts, serving in a post with Civil Service protection, was illegal as well. Baitsholts was removed without the required hearing; she said she was not even told she was being replaced.

In his email to Lyons and Palow, Willsey brings in his contempt for the duo’s continued support of Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger, who is chairman of both the local and county Republican committees, despite Willsey’s various claims that Bashwinger breaches traffic safety laws.

Willsey is a retired state Department of Transportation employee.

“And that is nothing,” Willsey wrote in his email to Lyons and Palow, “compared with the lies you used in an official motion to justify the derailment of our board approved safety initiative to address the highway department’s documented non-compliance with mandatory safety standards.  Your lies are a disincentive for people to work on behalf of the town and can clearly get people injured or killed.”


Conklin’s Dec. 9 motion

Conklin’s motion at the town board’s Dec. 9 meeting to allow public comment at all Berne Town Board meetings as opposed to every other meeting was stunning in that, typically — though not all of the time — the GOP-backed board members have voted as a bloc, and never, this year, has a motion from one of those members failed to pass (excluding a few miscellaneous motions made or votes taken that seemed designed for dramatic effect). 

Conklin’s motion was also one that would have soothed a major sore point for the regular attendees of the town board’s meetings. Since the board instituted its new meeting structure on Jan. 1, residents have complained about lacking opportunity to voice their thoughts and questions before the board.

“There should be a time designed during board meetings when the public can discuss their thoughts,” Conklin told The Enterprise in an email this week. “I'd encourage people to communicate with town officials by email and phone. Our information is on the Town of Berne website. Of course there’s still town residents without WiFi, to communicate by technology. 

“During the pandemic, it’s even more important for the public to inform its government [of] their needs. The public comment process, I feel gives people the opportunity to be seen and heard. Also, to have dialogue in a group setting, where we all can learn from this dialogue.”

Conklin said she was a “bit frustrated” when the motion failed, adding that “this could be a new start where town officials could have their own office hours, so residents can sit and talk with us one on one. We don’t know what people want and don’t want for the town, unless we hear from them.”

Berne is the only Hilltown government that doesn’t designate time for public comment at each regular town board meeting, with the exception of Westerlo, where residents have nevertheless been generally free to call out questions or make statements in the midst of board discussion without rebuke. 

After the pandemic prohibited in-person meetings, Afzali, acting as the town’s Zoom operator, once muted former-supervisor Kevin Crosier during an April public hearing after Crosier got into a spat with Conklin. Later in the meeting, Afzali muted the entire gallery, which had grown disruptive, so that Lyons had a chance to speak over them.

Lyons ultimately called a halt to remote public hearings until the town could secure higher quality broadcasting equipment, which it did in time for meetings held since COVID-19 cases in Albany County began rising rapidly this fall. 

While less clear-cut than other Berne scandals, Afzali’s power over the volume of the gallery during remote meetings led in part to Willsey questioning the attorney’s political motives. Other factors were Afzali’s letter to Vincent and a threat from Afzali that Willsey should bring Afzali to court over a straightforward Open Meetings Law concern.

Afzali was hired on fairly short notice (as far as the public is concerned), with the appointment made at the same meeting where the board authorized the resignation of its former attorney, William Conboy III, which also came on short public notice. 

Willsey, on Dec. 9, asked why he had not been part of any interview process regarding a new attorney and motioned that the town advertise for the position (which, it should be noted, is technically distinct from seeking a new attorney altogether). 

Conklin seconded the motion and voted in favor, against the three other board members.

“I'd like an attorney serving the town to represent the town,” Conklin told The Enterprise, “not a political party. Interviews would be helpful.”


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