WATERTOWN — Before he became mayor, then-candidate Jeffrey M. Smith consulted Erin E. Gardner on whether she should file a hostile work environment complaint against the city.
During a disciplinary hearing on Friday, it came out that Mayor Smith gave Ms. Gardner advice while the embattled superintendent of public works contemplated filing a complaint against former City Manager Rick Finn.
Ms. Gardner, who was suspended without pay on May 27, is facing 10 insubordination and misconduct charges could lead to her being fired. The accusations include leaking the complaint to the media, making disparaging remarks about Mr. Finn and city department heads, and not following the chain of command in filing the complaint.
Ms. Gardner, who took the stand for nearly an hour on her own behalf, has accused the city of retaliating against her for filing the complaint.
At the end of hearing, her attorney, Sarah D. Baum of Albany, asked why she thought she was suspended without pay.
“Because I put in a complaint,” she said.
Mayor Smith, City Councilman Jesse Roshia, city human resources manager Matthew Roy, Councilwoman Lisa Ruggiero and former Councilman Cody J. Horbacz testified against her during the nearly seven-hour hearing in City Hall council chambers.
Mayor Smith, whom Ms. Gardner considered a friend, testified that she made disparaging remarks against City Comptroller James E. Mills, Public Works Superintendent Patrick Keenan and Mr. Finn, who abruptly resigned following a 4-hour executive session on Jan. 24.
She made the remarks when she and then-candidate Smith talked with one other at council meetings during last fall’s campaign during the same time period when she received advice about filing the complaint. She denied the charge.
During his orientation before he got on council, Councilman Roshia said that Ms. Gardner called Mr. Keenan “an asshole” during a meeting with her while they toured the Watertown Municipal Arena last December.
He was shocked that she would disparage another department head, so he quickly called Mayor-elect Smith and told him that he wondered whether she should represent the city to the community if she would say things like that to him, the councilman testified.
Councilman Roshia, who has a human resources background at Samaritan Medical Center, said it was so alarming because he had only met her once before that.
During cross examination, City Attorney Robert J. Slye asked her whether the councilman was lying about the remark about Mr. Keenan.
“I would never call him an asshole,” she said.
The city also has accused Ms. Gardner of filing the complaint to embarrass Mr. Finn, who was accused of treating female employees differently than their male counterparts.
In her testimony, Ms. Gardner said she and Mr. Finn got along well initially, but he proposed a plan last July to consolidate public works and parks and recreation employees into a single lawn mowing crew.
She opposed the plan because it was stripping responsibilities from her employees.
The relationship soured when Mr. Finn kept her out of the loop with the consolidation plan and met separately with Mr. Keenan about it, which was one reason she filed the complaint, according to testimony.
On one occasion, Mr. Finn scolded her in front of other department heads, pointing a finger in her face, she said. And Mr. Keenan yelled and swore at her during a meeting, according to testimony.
Much of Friday’s testimony centered around whether she leaked the complaint to the media. The city accuses her of violating its nondiscrimination policy to keep a complaint private by going to the media.
The city is accusing Ms. Gardner of telling WWNY news director Jeff Cole, who she called a friend, that she was planned to file the complaint.
At her request on Nov. 7, Councilman Horbacz agreed to confirm the complaint to Mr. Cole during a television interview. Councilwoman Ruggiero declined an interview with him because she deemed it “improper,” she testified on Friday.
At that time, Ms. Gardner had not been identified as the department head who filed the complaint. She’s accused of lying about Councilwoman Ruggiero being the person who leaked the story.
During all of those weeks, Mr. Finn faced public ridicule and embarrassment from her accusations, while she could hide in the shadows, Mr. Slye said.
In defending herself, her identity became public on Jan. 23, when someone outed her in a comment made on former Mayor Jeffrey M. Graham’s blog, she testified.
In her testimony, Ms. Gardner said she wasn’t the one who leaked the story, since it was a Watertown Daily Times reporter who came to her weeks before and say he knew she was going to file it. She said she couldn’t have leaked the story if the reporter already knew of her plans.
At the time, only she and three other people — Mr. Smith, Councilwoman Ruggiero and Mr. Roy — knew she was about to file the complaint, she said.
Local attorney Larry Farley presided over Friday’s hearing. He will submit a recommendation of guilt or innocence and what kind of punishment she should receive, including termination.
City Manager Kenneth A. Mix, who replaced Mr. Finn, will decide her fate. It will take several weeks to get the transcripts of the hearing back and for both attorneys to file closing briefs.
The state Division of Human Rights also is conducting an investigation into whether a hostile work environment existed.
An outside consultant completed an internal city investigation, but council members determined at that Jan. 24 meeting that Mr. Finn’s actions did not arise to the level of a hostile work environment.
Mr. Finn and council members, however, agreed that he should resign for some other inappropriate action that was uncovered during the city investigation.