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December 11, 2009

Bernier reflects on working for Oneonta

By Jake Palmateer

ONEONTA _ Nearly every community development initiative at City Hall since the mid-1970s bears the mark of a man who is retiring at the end of this month.

That man, Joseph Bernier, served under four mayors, beginning with Mayor James F. Lettis.

"Jim Lettis was a great man and mayor for the city. He just said to me that we've spent a lot of money on Urban Renewal, it's time we pay attention to neighborhoods, parks, infrastructure and housing," Bernier, 59, said in an e-mail to The Daily Star. "He said simply, Joe, help make Oneonta a better place, get some grants that these other cities are getting and make Oneonta a place we can be proud of,' and that's what I tried to do."

Bernier was hired in May 1975 as the community development director three years after graduating from the State University College at Oneonta with a bachelor's degree in political science. In between, he earned a master's degree in public administration from Albany State and worked in Schenectady County government.

Under Lettis' successor, Mayor David Brenner, Bernier became the city's engineering administrator in 1990, overseeing much of the brick and mortar aspects of government.

"He's probably the most professional person you can find," Brenner said Thursday. "He knows how to handle both people and paper."

Bernier also had wisdom and foresight, Brenner said. "He was very good in talking about the development of Main Street over the long run."

The visions of the city fostered during the Lettis and Brenner administrations were carried by Bernier through the administrations of Mayor Kim Muller and Mayor John Nader.

"I was very fortunate that I only had four outstanding mayors over 35 years," Bernier said. "They were all great and did not underestimate the importance of stability at the top in a small city.

"It is very important in the grants process and dealing with state and federal agencies. Stability, consistent policies and plans, and efficient grant administration allows for other important grants and projects to keep being approved for the city."

During his nearly 35 years in city government, Bernier helped Oneonta get more than $30 million in grant funding, much of which went to improve the city's downtown.

Bernier said this was his best accomplishment.

"Under Kim Muller's leadership, grants were obtained to build the Main Street Plaza that bears her name, which was vital in moving forward on the Clarion Hotel project. Water Street was greatly improved and the old feed mill was removed and the site was prepared for Foothills," Bernier said.

But Bernier said he is proudest of his work on the city's park system.

"Neahwa Park, Wilber Park, Susquehanna River Park, Catella Park, swimming pools, Swart-Wilcox House and fields, Damaschke Field, Christman Field, Applebaugh Gardens and the Veterans Memorial Walkway are just wonderful examples of our quality of life here," Bernier said. "When the city received the Applebaugh Trust, the Mayor and Common Council had the foresight to undertake the master planning process, which resulted in all of these projects completed in a rational manner."

Bernier said there were many people to thank, especially his staff, for helping him in his life's work.

"I really haven't accomplished anything alone because bureaucracies are set up so that many people are necessary to accomplish even the most basic tasks," Bernier said.

Bernier marks the death of then-Supervisor of Streets and Parks Ted Christman in 1999 as a low point in his career.

"The city lost one of its greatest public servants that never enjoyed a day of retirement," Bernier said.

"Another unfortunate moment was a sick feeling in late June in 2006 (during the flood) when it was clear that the massive effort we were making to protect the Wastewater Treatment Plant and all the other municipal buildings on Silas Lane was not going to be enough to keep the Susquehanna River in its channel," Bernier said. "Mayor Nader showed the necessary leadership needed to bring us back from that historic flood and its devastating aftermath."

Nader said Thursday that Bernier leaves behind a giant legacy.

"I will miss working with Joe very much," Nader said as he reflected on Bernier's achievements. "He's far too modest about what those achievements are."

Brenner and Nader said they both expect Bernier to continue his public service in retirement.