Conklin resigns from Berne board

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

On Election Night, Nov. 8, 2011, Bonnie Conklin writes as the results are called. She won a four-year term with about 30 percent of the vote in a four-way race. Asked then about being the only Republican on the Berne Town Board, Conklin said, “I’m a little anxious about it, but I think we’ll work together as a team. I think we have the same goals in mind, which is positive.” She said of her victory this week that it shows, in a small community, individual reputation is more important than party lines.

BERNE — Bonnie Conklin resigned from the town board last week after nearly two years as the only Republican on a board of Democrats.

Conklin said her time is limited by increasing responsibilities at work and that she has been uncomfortable when she has voiced her disagreement at board meetings.

“It gets frustrating and stressful, and you know you’re going to be the only one with that other thought,” Conklin said of town board meetings.

Currently a prevention coordinator at Berne-Knox-Westerlo for St. Catherine’s Center for Children, Conklin said she may take on more duties at work.

Conklin told The Enterprise she considered leaving the board in October, when she first learned of possible changes to her job.

“Election came. I knew that was even going to be harder to get things that I believed in through the town,” said Conklin, with hopes to continue organizing with Republicans in Berne. She said she hasn’t ruled out running for political office in the future and plans to remain active with the town’s youth council. Supervisor Kevin Crosier said this week he would be glad to appoint her to the council.

The remaining four members of the town board will appoint someone to fill the vacant seat.

“My feeling is it should be the person that came up third in the votes, which was Phil Stevens,” Conklin said of the most recent election, where incumbent Democrats Joseph Golden and Wayne Emory beat the candidates running on the Republican line, Philip Stevens and Richard Otto, for council seats. Stevens is Conklin’s uncle.

“I think my discouragement is just my personality... I don’t have the makeup to continue on, to fight the fight,” said Conklin.

In a town where enrolled Democrats make up 47 percent of registered voters, GOP candidates have rarely been elected to the board. Sixteen percent of registered voters in Berne are enrolled Republican and a quarter is unaffiliated. Crosier, a Democrat, ran twice successfully on the GOP line. The last Republican board member before Conklin was Willard Osterhout, elected in 1989.

“I never saw her as the only Republican on the board,” Golden said to The Enterprise, noting Democrats have disagreed and voted against one another. Emory said, similarly, that anyone with opinions on the board vies for a majority to agree.

Conklin told The Enterprise she considered resigning more than a year ago, as well, again citing the time constraints of serving in political office while working full time with night shifts.

“I think she sometimes got frustrated at the process, but that’s the process and that equals good government,” Crosier said of compromise. Board members noted Conklin’s advocacy for youth and senior services and her organization with the youth council.

Golden and Supervisor Kevin Crosier sat with Conklin in Crosier’s office when she was first considering resignation and told her she should stay on. “Just to know I had support from them, I had the support of family and friends, I kept going,” she said.

Burden lifted

Conklin wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor on Oct. 24 in which she endorsed Republican candidates and described her “dismay with how Berne has been running and how we have let situations go without public consideration.”

“I was just implying, when I wrote my SAFE Act resolution, I felt they did not consider it, but with Karen Schimmer’s it was a no-brainer,” Conklin said. The board agreed during a work meeting on a resolution that called for more public consideration of the state’s arms-control law, which was passed in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School last year, and for a hearing in the town with state legislators.

Conklin voted to put forward the resolution that passed, but voted against its adoption.

Conklin had submitted a version that urged the state law be repealed. It was a sentiment supported by many in the audience of more than 80 who came to the March town board meeting.

“I understand she feels her resolution might have been the more effective one, but I didn’t think so, and neither did anyone else,” said Golden of the board members. “We discussed it. We discussed it in the meeting with about 90 other people in the room.”

 “There’s five people on a board,” said Crosier. “If you have an idea, you have to convince two of the four people that it’s a good idea. She wasn’t making the case.”

During her time on the board, Conklin voted, often alone, against these adopted measures:

— The 2013 budget (she also abstained from the 2014 budget vote);

— Contracting with a professional planner, Nan Stolzenburg of Wright, to advise the planning board;

— A resolution that town employees may participate in American Family Life Assurance Company of New York for their benefits;

— The annual setting of salaries during the 2013 organizational meeting;

— The town’s hydraulic fracturing moratorium;

— The town’s resolution on the SAFE Act;

— The appointment of a temporary clerk for the sewer district;

— The appointment of a temporary highway clerk; and

— The reprinting 200 copies of Our Heritage, a book on Berne history.

Conklin also wrote in her letter of “uncomfortable situations that evolve around town employees or other elected officials.” She told The Enterprise that she was upset by a meeting in executive session, closed from the public, where the town’s longtime judge, Democrat Kenneth Bunzey, was criticized for issuing fines that were too low and out of date on the court’s computer. According to meeting minutes, the session was “to discuss a personnel matter.”

The meeting, Conklin said, was to discuss the job description of the court clerk. If the meeting were to discuss job duties, it should have been held in public, according to the state’s Open Meetings Law.

“I can tell you that she’s not being truthful about the matter and that’s unfortunate, but I’m not going to discuss what happened in executive session,” Crosier said this week.

The court clerk position was allowed more money in the 2013 budget, with an increase from $9,000 to $11,600.

On Feb. 1, the board met in executive session with judges Albert Raymond and Bunzey. After an hour-and-a-half session, the board opened the meeting and unanimously voted to advertise for the position of court clerk and to appoint a temporary court clerk.

 “Clearly, an audit would clarify if there was mismanagement in the judge’s chambers,” said Conklin.

Bunzey said this week he would rather “let sleeping dogs lie,” and declined to comment. He resigned in April.

After the Nov. 13 town board meeting, Conklin, Crosier, and Emory talked to one another, at times shouting. Conklin raised her disapproval with the SAFE Act resolution. Crosier noted board members had encouraged her to stay on the board.

Conklin said she decided to resign after the Nov. 13 altercation and after talking to her husband.

“It kind of felt really good,” said Conklin. “I walked out of that meeting thinking, ‘You know what, I have so much lifted off my shoulders,’” said Conklin.

Looking back

According to official results from the Albany County Board of Elections, Conklin won the four-way race in 2011 with 470 votes — 118 Conservative and 352 Republican — over second-place Karen Schimmer’s 373 Democratic votes.

When she was elected, Conklin had worked with children at St. Catherine’s for 10 years and, after taking office, she acted as the board’s senior and youth council liaison — what she called the most fun part of the job.

“I was a frustrated citizen, seeing the town kind of physically and mentally deteriorate, the appearance of the town,” said Conklin of her bid. “Not a lot of activities were going on with the youth.”

Conklin said she was inspired by her parents’ stories of how Berne to used to have more people, businesses and churches thrived, and families planned activities together.

“What I hope to represent was to build up Berne what it was from years ago with businesses,” said Conklin. “I was truly hoping to get Stewart’s back in.” Saratoga-County-based Stewart’s Shops considered locating a convenience store in Berne in 2005 and 2012.

Conklin said she felt she didn’t have enough time to study issues, like budgets and insurance, properly. She wanted more money for youth and senior services in the 2013 budget, criticizing the increased spending for a senior account clerk in the town and raises for employees. Neither youth nor senior appropriations have increased.

“I don’t feel like I accomplished much,” Conklin said. “I hope I was just there for the people and I made a voice for them. And I hope to encourage more people to come out to board meetings and get involved in politics.”

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