WATERTOWN — Controversy erupted over the selection of a new city manager, even before Richard M. “Rick” Finn left the City Hall parking lot on his way back to Western New York.
Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. and City Council members were forced to defend their appointment of Mr. Finn as city manager soon after a Friday morning news conference that introduced him to the position.
Shortly after the announcement, a posting by a Geneva blogger was already making the rounds at City Hall. The blog accused Mr. Finn of holding four similar positions over the past 25 years and leaving under a cloud of controversy each time.
Mr. Finn, a resident of Hilton, near Rochester, was a finalist for the city manager job in Geneva before he was offered the position in Watertown, he said. He also withdrew from the search process in Batavia after Watertown offered him the job, he said.
According to the blog, Geneva Believer, Mr. Finn left each job following accusations of harassment, discrimination, misconduct and racism during his career.
Numerous former employees accused Mr. Finn of “bullying,” and “harassment,” and being “belligerent,” “disrespectful,” “unprofessional,” “a dictator” and “liar,” according to the blog. Many of those employees complained of mistreatment and being retaliated against, forcing them to leave their jobs.
When asked about the accusations, Mr. Finn blamed the blogger — identified as Genevan Jim Meaney — for disparaging his reputation because Mr. Meaney wanted another candidate to be hired in Geneva.
“I think I’m sort of a victim,” he said Friday night.
Mr. Meaney could not be reached for comment.
As for the accusations about his former employees, Mr. Finn said he believes it’s important to hold public employees “accountable.” Sometimes as city manager, employees can become “disgruntled” if they are not happy with the way they were treated. But making sure that he got results was just being “a good manager,” he said.
Mr. Finn has been city manager at numerous locations, including Sandusky, Ohio; Sun Prairie, Wis.; Takoma Park, Md.; and Peekskill, N.Y. Most recently, he worked as the city manager in Bay City, Mich., before deciding to “take some time off” and “be with family.”
During a two-year tenure in Peekskill from 2009 to 2011, Mr. Finn and other city officials were criticized by an area activist for not taking accusations of racism seriously. The accusation involved an employee training session on customer service in which department heads were asked whether they would talk to groups of white people and African Americans differently, said consultant John C. Krol, who handled Watertown’s city manager search.
The activist, Darrell Davis, of the Peekskill Committee for Justice, complained that the comments were offensive. The training session was taped but never released by the city of Peekskill.
Mr. Finn denied the accusations.
“I find racism and discrimination disgusting,” he said Friday. “I do not tolerate it.”
Mr. Krol said Mr. Finn told him and council members about the incident during the search process.
“He was up front about that early on during the process,” Mr. Krol said, adding that Mr. Finn was completely exonerated for it.
Mr. Finn provided a packet of information in his resume that included a one-page document offering an explanation of what happened during the incident.
“At the request of the City Council, the city attorney investigated the allegations and determined that the allegations were false,” he wrote, adding that the city attorney’s report and findings were posted as part of the public record in the city’s official minutes.
While he was in Bay City, the city’s public works director accused Mr. Finn of attempting to manipulate data in a city study.
The public works director, William Bohlen, accused Mr. Finn of trying to fudge data on a study that recommended rates for how much residents paid for garbage collection.
The Bay City Commission ended up determining it was a misunderstanding and found no fault between the two city officials. Mr. Finn provided the minutes that showed the Bay City Commission approved a resolution that didn’t blame anyone for the misunderstanding.
“In both cases, the accusations were found not correct or totally false,” he said.
Saying the new city manager “was proactive,” Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. said Mr. Finn provided explanations about both issues and council members were satisfied with them. But Mr. Butler and council members were blind-sided by the blog — the mayor added he was surprised the allegations would come out so quickly.
He also defended that Mr. Finn was properly vetted. Mr. Krol talked to both references that Mr. Finn provided and then checked with others to see what they had to say about him.
In the Bay City matter, Mr. Krol said he talked to eight people, including City Hall beat reporter Andrew Dodson, who covered city government for the Bay City News.
But Mr. Finn did not tell Mr. Krol and council members about economic development Director Patti Stowell, who abruptly retired after he allegedly verbally attacked her in June 2015 when Mr. Finn worked in Bay City, according to the Bay City News.
She accused him of being “belligerent, disrespectful” and acting in an “unprofessional manner” during a meeting with a local business.
In an April 18, 2002, article in The Washington Post, Mr. Finn came under fire for how he dealt with a Takoma, Md., resident whose house was going to be demolished to make way for a fire department parking lot.
The article told a story of how Nevella Malloy and her neighbors would not leave their homes, despite the plans to tear them down.
Malloy told a Washington Post reporter that Mr. Finn, then the Takoma Park City administrator, threatened her by saying that if she didn’t leave, he’d seek to have her children taken from her.
Mayor Butler said he was unaware of those two incidents — that Mr. Finn didn’t notify them about the situations.
In regards to Ms. Stowell, Mr. Finn said there were some “personnel issues” with the Bay City economic development director. While he could not elaborate what they were, Mr. Finn said he tried to dissuade her from retiring but she did not change her mind.
He remembered working on the Takoma fire department project, but said he did not know anything about the Washington Post article or Ms. Malloy.
“Anybody can say anything about a city manager,” he said.
During the past 25 years, Mr. Finn has held positions in four cities, for as little as about two years in Peekskill, five years in Sandusky, six years in Takoma and three years and three months in Bay City.
Four positions in 25 years is typical for a city manager, since the average duration for one job is a little more than five years, according to industry standards, he said.
Newspaper articles from the communities in which he worked pointed to problems of management style that drove high-ranking city employees to leave their posts. In Takoma, those allegations were extensively researched before his hiring and some officials said that tough management style was an asset when he was leaving.
He resigned to pursue a doctorate, his packet of information indicated.
He reportedly, at times, had a strained relationship with council in Peekskill, but Mr. Finn reportedly left of his own accord, according to the Peekskill Patch.
In some instances, elected officials expressed that Mr. Finn overstayed his welcome. But Mr. Finn insisted that he left his jobs on his own, except for one position.
Despite some of what she knew about him, Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero said that council members were impressed with Mr. Finn’s experience.
She liked the way he handled fiscal issues, presenting budgets with low tax increases, and allowed elected officials to decide what items they believed should be added to the fiscal plans.
She’s also not alarmed about his management style.
“Sometimes you need to make people accountable to get things done,” she said.
Councilman Cody J. Horbacz said he doesn’t have any concerns about Mr. Finn holding a series of positions.
“That’s the nature of the job,” he said.
The job changes were not a big deal to Mayor Butler, either.
He may have been popular with one set of elected officials and then a change in regime occurs. Then the new council might not like him, he said. That’s what happened to City Manager Sharon A. Addison, whose contract was not renewed in January, the mayor said.
Mayor Butler said he thought that Mr. Finn would be a good fit, citing his experience working in the past on housing issues, accomplishments involving downtown development and redevelopment, and economic development along a river in Bay City that led to 30 new businesses and a $50 million investment.
Mayor Butler said he believes Mr. Finn’s appointment will proceed. He also doesn’t foresee much public outcry with the appointment.
Council members are slated to approve Mr. Finn’s contract at Monday night’s meeting. He would earn $120,000 a year.
His first day on the job is scheduled for July 30, the same day interim City Manager Bradford Minnick leaves City Hall.