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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 31, 2009

2009 in review: Berne
Plans for sewer system progress, master plan is re-visited,
Dems sweep elections, Spargo sentenced to jail, St. Bernadette’s to close

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — Town business continued apace this year, as Berne moves closer to beginning construction on its long-awaited sewer district in the hamlet, and the comprehensive plan is still under review. But the face of town government will change since the supervisor and highway superintendent did not seek re-election. One Berne resident, a former state judge, was found guilty and will go to prison, while another finds his place in his home county after a tour in the Middle East.

The planned sewer system for the hamlet of Berne would be the first municipal system in town. It was required by the state because sewage from substandard septic systems and contaminated wells was seeping into the Foxenkill. The town passed its sewer-use ordinance in November of 2008.

The cost of the project for the hamlet of Berne was increased this year from $2.5 million to $3.6 million. The now approved increased will amount to $4 more annually for a typical property.

In June, Supervisor Kevin Crosier announced that the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development agency would be giving the town its third chunk of grant money — $600,000 worth — adding up to $1.6 million in total grants from the USDA. Back in 2004, Berne got its first $500,000, and another half-million dollars came this past March. The town has also received $750,000 from the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation, $25,000 from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and $10,000 from the New York State Hudson River Valley Greenway.

A petition drawn up and presented to the town board this summer by district resident Diane Dibble contained signatures from some district residents who opposed not only the cost increase, but the sewer project in general.

Highway worker Joseph Welsh, Dibble’s neighbor, helped by collecting signatures from residents who shared their view. The petition had signatures from 17 homes within the proposed district, according to Clerk Patricia Favreau. Councilman Peter Vance said there are close to 90 homes in the district.

“I live on [Route] 156 below 443, and everyone has approved septic tanks down there,” Welsh told The Enterprise in July. “There are probably eight or nine residents down there with working septic tanks; people with approved septics do not need new sewer districts, and the town is basically forcing us to have this happen. Just because some people can’t flush their toilet, it isn’t our problem.”

Welsh said that his septic system was tested when he bought his house four years ago, and “everything’s fine,” he said.

While Dibble shares Welsh’s sentiment, she originally drew up the petition because she does not think the town can afford the project, despite the grant money the town is set to receive.

Nonetheless, the town board approved the cost increase in September, and continues to take steps towards the construction, most recently agreeing to move forward with eminent domain proceedings to secure land required for the sewer district.

Dems sweep elections

Berne’s Democrats made a clean sweep once again this year.

Democrat George Gebe and Republican Carl Baranishyn, both newcomers to politics, faced off for the open supervisor post, as incumbent Crosier decided not to seek re-election.

Gebe won in a landslide with 474 votes, or 64 percent of the vote; Baranishyn garnered 259 votes, or 32 percent.

Gebe named the sewer district as a project that is “set up at this point” and needs to be followed through. Another project Gebe mentioned is the plan to move the library from the crowded town hall to the senior center.

Baranishyn said after elections that he was not surprised with the outcome of the election.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect to win because of the Democratic status of the town,” he said, referring to the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly three to one in Berne. “I’m very happy getting roughly 35 percent of the vote,” he said.

Baranishyn concluded, “Am I going to continue to raise hell with the town board? You bet your sweet bippy.”

Colin Abele, 26, a Democrat, launched a write-in campaign for supervisor this fall, campaigning door-to-door. He garnered 69 votes according to the board of elections, but he estimated that 100 to 150 people had attempted to write in his name.

Abele’s write-in campaign led to awareness that the voting machine in Town Hall, serving District 2, was malfunctioning. Abele went to vote at about 7 a.m., he said.

As the day went on, others noted the problem; the machine couldn’t be fixed, so, at about 3 p.m., poll workers gave voters paper ballots to fill out instead. This led to a delay in tallying results after the polls closed as 189 ballots had to be counted by hand.

As Abele watched the counting process in Town Hall, one of just a handful of onlookers, he said that, far from being discouraged, he was “energized,” and planned to stay involved in politics. “It’s in my blood,” he said.

The closest race was for town board. In a four-way race for two seats, the Democratic incumbents bested their Republican challengers.

Joseph Golden was the top vote-getter with 542 votes, or about 31 percent, followed by Wayne Emory with 465 votes, or 27 percent. Not far behind was Rudy Stempel with 366 votes, or 21 percent, followed by Kenneth Crawford with 361 votes, nearly 21 percent.

Golden is now the board’s longest-serving member and, he pointed out, he will be the only board member who graduated from Berne-Knox-Westerlo, which used to be the norm for the board.

Golden said on the day after elections that he is pleased he won and looks forward to working with Gebe; the two had worked together before as teachers at Schoharie High School, he said.

Emory, 52, an artist for the State Lottery, won a second four-year term. Emory said during his campaign that he hopes to continue learning, and this motivates him to continue his involvement in town business.

The only other contested race was for highway superintendent and, again, as for supervisor, two newcomers faced off; the incumbent, Ray Storm, did not seek re-election.

Democrat Kenneth Weaver, a longtime Berne highway worker, garnered 512 votes, for 58 percent. Republican Randy Rapp — a 50-year-old union carpenter — garnered 363 votes, or 41 percent.

The assessor, the tax collector, two judges, and the town clerk — all Democrats — ran unopposed.

Albert Raymond, 52, a town judge in Berne since January, got 663 votes. Kenneth Bunzey, 56, a town justice for 17 years, got 621 votes.

Town Clerk Patricia Favreau received 698 votes. She has been Berne’s clerk since 1980 and is also the town’s tax collector and marriage officer. “It’s a job where you can never be bored,” she said.

Robert Motschmann, one of three part-time assessors for Berne, was elected for a fourth four-year term with 634 votes.

Gerald O’Malley, 68, Berne’s receiver of taxes for 19 years, was the election’s highest vote-getter with 710 votes.

Spargo found guilty

Last week, former state Supreme Court judge Thomas Spargo was sentenced to 27 months in prison. He said afterward that he thought the sentence, handed down by United States District Court Judge Gary Sharpe, was a fair one.

The one-time Berne town judge was found guilty in August of extortion and bribery for orchestrating a plan to solicit funds from lawyers with cases before him in order to pay his own legal bills.

Spargo’s downfall began in 1999 with the race for town justice in Berne, where Spargo lives. A Republican, he won the race in a town dominated by Democrats. He was later accused of judicial misconduct by the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct for, among other things, “offering items of value to induce voters to vote for him.” His mounting legal defense fees are what prompted him to lean on lawyers for funds.

In the days leading up to Spargo’s conviction in August, a number of attorneys, who joined Spargo for a luncheon at La Canard restaurant in Kingston in December of 2003, testified on their recollections of the luncheon. The prosecution alleged that attorney Sanford Rosenblum, a friend of Spargo, solicited money on Spargo’s behalf for a legal defense fund, created to help pay off Spargo’s legal bills from the federal lawsuit. Upon conviction, Spargo was stripped of his license to practice law.

Spargo’s attorney, E. Stewart Jones, said, “You can’t judge a man by his worst moments; you have to look at the whole life.” A prison sentence, Jones concluded, would be “barbaric,” and “a cruel redundancy,” given the effect his crimes have already had on his personal and professional life.

But, Judge Sharpe replied, “This is not a case where, because of substance abuse, a lawyer steals money out of a trust fund; this is extortion.”

As ordered Monday by United States District Court Judge Gary Sharpe, Spargo will be locked up in the closest prison to the city of Albany, followed by a supervisory period of two years.

Jones said after the fact, “Sentencing him to prison on top of all he’s otherwise lost, it’s a life in ruins.”

Top secret

In April, Adam Kodra returned home to Berne, after spending nearly a year in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan with the Army National Guard. He was on top-secret missions, disarming bombs in the heart of the Middle East.

Being on those assignments was “incredible,” said Kodra, who is 22. “It’s a good feeling, and it’s a proud feeling, more than anything. Been there, done that, can’t tell you what it was,” he told The Enterprise upon his return.

Recollections of his time in the war zone — though it took him years to get there — are vivid. Kodra recalled his team’s first encounter with an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

“I was looking out the window, a piece of the window broke away, and I felt the boom, and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, these guys are trying to kill me,’” he said. “Later, when I took the gun, I thought about that. We’re trying to help these people. We’re trying to build schools for them. We’re giving them food, and we’re giving them clothes. And these people come in and tear up everything that we did. So, to be honest, when it was my trigger time, I thought, ‘They’re not going to take my life, or my buddies’ lives.’”

Kodra turned 18 in boot camp. While he saw the calmer side of the conflict in Kuwait and Iraq, his tour of Afghanistan was shaped by explosions and gunfire.

“Baghdad is civilized: There are concrete buildings, there are signs, there are paved roads,” Kodra said. “In Afghanistan, you’re fighting in the mountains, and you’re fighting guys who live in mud houses. The terrain — everything — is different. We weren’t trained for this.”

Some bombs, he said, cannot be diffused, and have to be blown up where they are.

“As soon as we started working on something, that’s when the ambushes took place,” he said. “And they came out fast, hard, and heavy. They would start mortaring us, then they’d start rocketing us, then they’d start shooting at us with small arms. They were using tunnels, and they were everywhere. It was unbelievable. We’d be out there with 20 of us, and there would be 40 or 50 of them. And it was just — fight your way out.”

In April, his tour ended. He returned to Kuwait, flew back to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, and was back home a few days later. But there were times in Afghanistan, Kodra said, when he wondered whether or not he would make it home.

Comprehensive plan progresses

Town residents got a special delivery this fall when a survey on the town’s comprehensive land-use plan appeared in their mailboxes. The 10-page document asked the people of Berne what they want to see in the soon-to-be-updated plan; the current plan was developed two decades ago.

The 41-question survey sought opinions from residents about a wide range of topics, including: what types of housing are needed in Berne; encouragement of agriculture; town government; infrastructure; community services; community character; renewable energy; cultural, historic, and recreational resources; the importance of preserving open space; and commercial and economic development.

The town’s comprehensive planning committee, headed by James Cooke and working closely with certified planner Nan Stolzenburg, has met with different groups in town, including farmers, to find out what they hope to see in the revised plan.

“It’s important because it’s an open process, and it’s supposed to be all about what residents and landowners think their town ought to be like,” Cooke said in September. “Without that input, the plan just doesn’t have any credence at all.”

He concluded, “Of course, there are some issues that are probably going to be a little prickly, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Harold Miller, a Berne native who now lives in Mexico, has recently piqued interest in promoting agri-tourism in the Hilltowns, which Stolzenburg said has been used successfully in nearby communities as an economic stimulus.

Church to close

Congregants at St. Bernadette’s Church in Berne learned this past January that their home church will close next year.

“It’s devastating,” said Theresa Casal in January; she is a lector at St. Bernadette’s. “It’s a very close-knit family there.”

Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese announced the closure of 33 churches in the 14-county diocese.

Sister Mary Lou Liptak, the parish life director at St. Bernadette’s, said in January that the reason for the closing of the church was not financial; rather, the reasons included “the lack of priests and also attendance, and the diminished community,” she said.

St. Bernadette’s has 200 members, Liptak said, of which 100 come to worship at any given time.

Casal said then that she and her husband plan to attend St. Lucy’s Church, St. Bernadette’s sister church in Altamont, when their church closes at the end of 2010.

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