In with the new: Outgoing Hilltowns board members reflect and advise in final weeks

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel
Margaret Sedlmeir, at one of her last Rensselaerville Town Board meetings, in November, peruses paperwork.

HILLTOWNS — In the first week of January, the four Hilltowns will hold their re-organizational meetings, where the first order of business will be to swear in the new board members. 

This year, seven town board seats were up for grabs: two each in Berne, Knox, and Westerlo; and one in Rensselaerville. Knox and Westerlo also had supervisor races. 

Of the four incumbents who ran for town board, only Amie Burnside, a Westerlo Republican, kept her seat. All the seats but Rensselaerville’s flipped Republican — or to GOP-backed Democrats and third-party candidates — in a blunderbuss effort to break from the Democrat-majority boards that governed the Hilltowns for decades.

In Knox, Dennis Cyr and June Springer supplanted incumbent Democrats Earl Barcomb and Dennis Barber. Notably, Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis, who is enrolled as a Democrat but was endorsed by the Knox GOP, defended his seat against Russell Pokorny, a Democrat endorsed by the Democrats. 

In Berne, where the incumbent Democrats did not seek re-election, Bonnie Conklin — who from 2011 until 2013 was the town board’s sole Republican before she resigned in frustration — and Mathew Harris beat out Democrats Brian Bunzey and Frank Brady. Conklin is enrolled as a Conservative; Harris os an Independence Party member.

In Westerlo, Burnside kept her seat, while Matthew Kryzak ousted Democrat Anthony Sherman. Meanwhile, Democrat supervisor William Bichteman defended his seat as acting supervisor against Republican challenger and planning board chairwoman Dorothy Verch.

Rensselaerville, meanwhile, stayed above the fray, with Democrat Anthony Guadagno running an uncontested campaign to replace Margaret Sedlmeir, a member of the Independence Party. 

Reflections

In advance of the swearings-in of new Hilltowns board members the first week of January, The Enterprise spoke with Sedlmeir, and Berne’s two Democrat incumbents, Dawn Jordan and Karen Schimmer, who reflected on their tenures and offered some advice for the newcomers. 

 “I didn’t know what to expect,” said Jordan of her council experience. “It was a whole lot of work and responsibility.”

“You look at things in a totally different light when you get involved in town government,” she added later.

“The first year in office has a steep learning curve,” said Schimmer, who listed a gauntlet of areas that are likely arcane to those without direct experience, including various laws — both state and local — protocols, and mandates.

“Lots of people think that the only thing you do is go to the town board meetings .... and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Jordan. “Don’t expect to not spend a whole lot of time.”

To get over the obscurities of local office, Sedlmeir suggested that new members seek help from those with more experience, and be willing to take the back seat when necessary.

“Listen,” she said. “Especially if you’re new. And ask questions.”

“Don’t think that at the end of the first year that you’re going to know everything,” Jordan said. “I’ve been doing this for six years and I don’t know everything.”

Both Schimmer and Sedlmeir served two four-year terms on their boards. Jordan, who was first appointed to fill in for Conklin after her resignation, served the maximum of one year before running for a four-year term that began in 2015.

Each, in their tenure, worked hard to address their town’s needs and citizens’ concerns.

Sedlmeir expressed pride in her work with the annual Rensselaerville picnic, which an advertisement from this year describes as a celebration of the “unity of the five hamlets: Cooksburg, Medusa, Preston Hollow, Potter Hollow, and Rensselaerville.” 

Jordan is proud of writing Berne’s newly-adopted legislation regarding industrial-scale solar facilities, which she said the Albany County Planning Board complimented, along with her input as an audience member during meetings of the Comprehensive Plan Committee, of which Schimmer was a part.

Schimmer, meanwhile, developed the town’s Master Plan with Mark Hohengasser for the town park and acquired a grant for playground equipment, which was ultimately installed.

“Being a town board member is enormously gratifying,” Schimmer said. “It is work, and it is time consuming to do it correctly, but it is worth every moment.”

For the future, Jordan said, she hopes that the town board will refer to Berne’s comprehensive plan, adopted in 2017, when making decisions.

“Our comprehensive plan is designed to solicit input from the community … about the direction they want the town to go in and the direction they don’t want to see the town go in,” she said.

Sedlmeir hopes that citizens of Rensselaerville will understand how necessary they are to the government of the town.

“I’ll run into people in the grocery store and they’ll tell me they don’t go to board meetings because the board is doing such a great job,” Sedlmeir said. “Well that’s not the point. We want input.”

Changes

While Lefkaditis bristled in an election-night interview about being identified with his running mates as Republican, and virtually all candidates praised themselves for their bipartisan perspective, the 2020 town boards of Westerlo, Berne, and Knox are nonetheless likely to push through legislations that have historically been met with diametric opposition. 

Initiatives conducive to small-business opportunities are the most likely to be approved by GOP-backed boards, to the chagrin of those who adamantly defend the rural character of the Hilltowns, and those with environmental concerns.

In Knox, a three-year debate over a proposed business district — which was eventually changed to a multi-use residential district — was met with a fatal vote this October, when Democrats Earl Barcomb and Dennis Barber, one of whose votes was required for a supermajority, issued nays after expressing concerns about the proposal’s inconsistency with the town’s comprehensive plan.

“I’m interested in keeping things rural,” Barcomb told The Enterprise in a campaign interview. “I’m pushing for home-based business that fits with our rural community.”

With Cyr and Springer as their replacements, a resurrection of the plan to redistrict 80 acres around the intersection of Routes 156 and 157 is all but guaranteed — as is its approval. 

In Westerlo, the party discretions are indeed more subtle, but still visible. Last August, reservations about the introduction of solar farms into the town turned into a moratorium set to expire in August 2020, which in turn became a sticking point in the election.

While the vote to establish the moratorium was unanimous, Verch, who served as the face of Westerlo’s Republican surge, used her support of the issue to distinguish herself from Acting Supervisor Bichteman. It didn’t become a unifying point for candidates of either party, but it spoke to the larger debate Westerlo has, like Knox, about the balance between rural lifestyles and modern trappings.

Berne has experienced the greatest partisan disruptions when concerns about highway and town hall safety, raised by Democrats, turned into power surges for the town’s GOP, chaired by Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger. 

Democrat Joel Willsey, who worked for the state’s Department of Transportation in engineering-adjacent positions, frequently pointed out areas of concern at town board meetings and in letters to the Enterprise editor with photographs and detailed slideshows.

With the support of fellow Democrats Jordan and Schimmer, Willsey sought twice this year to bring outside expertise to the highway department. 

The first attempt involved a municipal consultant — Michael Richardson, a graduate of the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, as well as a Democrat town councilman in Chatham, Greene County — who was hired in September of this year to review the areas of the town budget and make recommendations to help the town construct a more accurate budget.

While his counsel led to a budget that’s more accurate than those of years’ prior and allowed for an increase in spending despite a decrease in taxes, Richardson told The Enterprise that it was done in spite of Republican deadlocking.

Bashwinger never submitted the highway department’s cost predictions for 2020, said Richardson, which are a state requirement. Additionally, Richardson said that Bashwinger never came for a one-on-one consultation, which was made clear to be necessary for the process.

“What’s the word you use for ‘Not at all?’” Richardson told the Enterprise when asked about Bashwinger’s cooperation during the process. He added that Republican Supervisor Sean Lyons was also uncooperative.

Currently, the town is considering bringing in a highway engineer to address issues that Willsey has raised with Berne’s roads and to guide Bashwinger in fixing them. Supervisor Lyons and Republican councilman Dennis Palow object to the idea.

The political divides became personal after Willsey said that Palow, a veteran, threatened him during the board’s July meeting, and the Democrats subsequently passed legislation that stationed a sheriff’s deputy at the town hall during board meetings, as well as required all town meeting attendees to pass through a metal detector in the lobby.

A town board meeting that the Democrats boycotted due to their safety concerns turned into a rally in support of Palow, with veterans and civilians alike coming from outside the town’s borders to attend.

In the board’s first fully-attended meeting since July, Palow announced that he filed a discrimination complaint against Willsey, triggering a mandatory investigation — another in a long line of GOP-launched investigations of Willsey — that is as yet incomplete.

With Jordan and Schimmer leaving their posts and Conklin and Harris filling in, Willsey will be the sole Democrat on the board, and the engineer’s assessment of the roadways will likely be dismissed, along with any of Willsey’s future criticisms of the highway department.

More Hilltowns News

  • Javid Afzali has officially resigned as Knox’s attorney and, at its April 7 regular meeting, the Knox Town Board hired Michelle Storm of Monaco Cooper Lamme & Carr to fill the position. 

  • The Helderberg Ambulance Squad has enlisted volunteers and is asking for more to help sew gowns to be worn by squad members as they work in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The gowns will be waterproof and washable, meaning they can be reused. “ ... We didn’t ever wear gowns that often so we didn’t have enough [when the virus hit],” Mildred Zuk, an emergency medical technician, told The Enterprise. 

  • Peter Hotaling, Westerlo’s former assessor, withdrew the Article 78 proceding he had filed against the town after it unceremoniously allowed other candidates to apply for the position. Hotaling had been in the position for 19 years, and now works as Rensselaerville’s sole assessor.

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