Gardner and city spar over dismissal

Erin Gardner peers at documentation that her attorney, Sarah Baum, flips through prior to the start of a hearing at Watertown City Hall earlier this year. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Erin E. Gardner just wants the City Council to admit that former City Manager Rick Finn acted inappropriately toward her and other female employees.

The embattled parks and recreation superintendent is reacting to the 33-page report that the city released over the weekend that determined in just one instance the former city manager created a hostile work environment.

The city on Saturday evening released a redacted version of what has been dubbed “The Finn Report.” The report was prepared by Public Sector HR Consultants, Glenville, in response to Ms. Gardner’s complaints.

Despite finding that six of seven of Ms. Gardner’s complaints did not rise to the level of a violation of city policy, the report indicated several interviews with female staff, taken collectively, “reveals conduct towards female staff that is intimidating and offensive.”

It concluded Mr. Finn’s behavior violated the city’s policy on Non-Discrimination and Harassment in the Workplace, which the report says “specifically prohibits conduct by any employee that disrupts or interferes with another’s work performance or that creates an intimidating, offensive or hostile work environment.”

“Even if didn’t rise to a hostile work environment, he acted inappropriately to women,” Ms. Gardner said, stressing that the city should acknowledge how female city employees were treated.

For months, she said, the city knew how Mr. Finn was acting toward female employees and didn’t do anything about it until she filed her complaint.

Ms. Gardner said that she filed the report not only for the way she was treated but also for the way other women on the staff were.

But Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith defended the city’s handling of the situation, stressing the consultant found that six instances were “exaggerated, unfounded or didn’t violate city policies.”

In the seventh instance, the consultant concluded it appeared that Mr. Finn violated the city’s nondiscrimination policy, he said.

Mr. Finn abruptly resigned on Jan. 24 following a two-hour executive session. Council members said that he resigned as a result of other issues that came up during the internal investigation.

The relationship between Mr. Finn and Ms. Gardner soured over a disagreement of whether the parks and public works departments should consolidate their building and grounds crews. She accused the former city manager of making disparaging remarks about her while she lobbied to keep them separate.

Mr. Finn apparently asked female employees to get his coffee or bring paperwork to him when it was already on his desk “was outdated behavior,” the mayor said.

Mayor Smith also stressed that he wasn’t involved in Mr. Finn’s hiring. He was in office just two weeks when council members met in executive session and Mr. Finn resigned, so he and the current council acted “definitively.”

Mr. Finn’s resignation stems from the consultant determining that he lied about an Oct. 7, 2019, incident involving Ms. Gardner and an employee whose name is redacted in the report.

She recorded the interaction between Mr. Finn, Ms. Gardner and other staff on her cellphone without the other participants’ knowledge.

According to Public Sector’s report, the unnamed employee responded “Bullshit” to a comment made by Ms. Gardner. Mr. Finn denied that he knew the incident happened. That situation led to the consultant questioning Mr. Finn’s credibility.

Now that the public can see the report, other aspects of the situation remain unresolved.

Ms. Gardner has a complaint pending with the state Division of Human Rights. A hearing date has not been set.

Ms. Gardner, who was suspended without pay on May 27, is facing 10 insubordination and misconduct charges, which 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.

In June, the hearing officer, Timothy A. Farley, heard a day’s worth of testimony during a disciplinary hearing that could result in Ms. Gardner’s firing. The city is waiting to receive Mr. Farley’s recommendation.

But The Times confirmed on Monday night that the city never gave the report to Mr. Farley so he could he use its contents to help him decide Ms. Gardner’s fate.

Finally on Monday, Mr. Farley got a copy of the report. Ms. Gardner’s attorney, James D. Hartt, Rochester, provided him with a copy.

Her attorney requested that the hearing officer not make a recommendation until he saw the report.

Mr. Slye, however, said that he “objected” to the hearing officer that Mr. Hartt took the action to provide it to him, calling “it irrelevant” to the case to terminate Ms. Gardner.

Mayor Smith explained that the report and disciplinary action have nothing to do with each other. They are separate issues.

The city initially refused to release the report, citing a respect for the privacy of employees who participated in the investigation with the understanding they would remain anonymous.

But WWNY-TV, also known as 7 News, sued and won the case. However, a state Supreme Court judge agreed to redact employee names.

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