Gardner, city spar over complaint

Erin Gardner. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Erin E. Gardner is accusing city officials of continuing to retaliate against her for filing a complaint against former City Manager Rick Finn that alleges he created a hostile work environment.

On Wednesday, the city suspended Ms. Gardner, the city’s parks and recreation department superintendent, without pay, accusing her of insubordination for talking to council members about her complaint.

Proper protocol dictates that she deal with the issue only with Human Resources Director Matthew Roy.

In a statement issued Saturday, City Manager Kenneth A. Mix said Ms. Gardner made untrue statements during a television interview last week about not feeling comfortable filing a complaint with Mr. Roy because “another previous complaint she filed in September was ignored.”

After conducting an investigation, Mr. Mix concluded that her statement to Channel 7 “was untrue.”

On Saturday, Ms. Gardner said Mr. Roy told her in a Sept. 4 meeting that her accusations against Mr. Finn would not stick, so he advised her not to file the report and she did not pursue the matter at that time.

“All I wanted to do was create a better work environment for me and fellow employees, who feared the former city manager,” she said.

Instead, she says, the latest attack against her is “another form of retaliation for making out a complaint.”

Mr. Mix, who replaced Mr. Finn as city manager in January after he abruptly resigned on Jan. 24, disputes Ms. Gardner’s allegation that her complaint was ignored.

During the Sept. 4 meeting, Mr. Roy told her she needed to fill out a complaint form to start the process, but she indicated that she didn’t want to do that, Mr. Mix said.

Instead, she gave him some notes and said she would get back to him about filing a complaint, according to Mr. Mix. On Oct. 22, she asked for the complaint form and she turned it in on Nov. 6. The next day, the city’s internal investigation began.

In his statement, Mr. Mix said he felt it was important to correct Ms. Gardner’s statement to Channel 7 to ensure city employees know that the city proceeded with the complaint.

“The city takes such complaints very seriously,” he said.

After she filed the complaint against Mr. Finn, the city hired a Glenville firm, HR Consultants, to conduct an internal investigation. After reviewing the report, the council determined that Mr. Finn’s alleged behavior did not rise to the level of having created a hostile work environment, but that “other concerns and issues arose during the investigation which are of concern to both Mr. Finn and the City Council.” He abruptly resigned that day.

About a month later, Ms. Gardner filed a hostile work environment complaint against Mr. Finn with the state Division of Human Rights. That investigation is pending. The emails between her and Mr. Roy also are a part of the state investigation, she said.

Last week, Ms. Gardner said she was suspended for being insubordinate by going to City Council members to talk about her complaint. She also said council members encouraged her to filethe complaint.

On Saturday, Ms. Gardner said her relationshipwith Mr. Mix soured after she disagreed on a plan to combine the ground crews of her department and that of the public works department.

After that, Mr. Finn treated her differently, she said, ridiculing her in front of other department heads and other employees, and sending her derogatory emails.

Describing one of those exchanges, a male employee approached her following a department head meeting and told her: “I thought you were being reprimanded by your father.”

After the Sept. 4 meeting with Mr. Roy, she sent him an email thanking him for listening to her about her concerns with Mr. Finn.

“As I indicated to you, completing my job is getting increasingly more difficult due to the way he treats me,” she wrote on Sept. 12.

“I have been with the City for over 7 years and have never once felt discriminated against, until now. It is very clear while meeting with Rick, he does not respect me at the same level as he respects other male employees in the room. He does not give me a fair opportunity to do my job and it appears he does not value my input whatsoever.”

Ms. Gardner submitted reports on a series of incidents involving Mr. Finn and witnesses who could verify the alleged occurrences. At the time, former Councilman Cody J. Horbacz said other female employees described a hostile work environment.

Out of about 50 pages, the city allowed Ms. Gardner to read five pages of HR Consultants’ report. In the report, the consultants made it very clear, she said, that Mr. Finn created a hostile work environment on multiple occasions.

“If they read the same report I did, it’s very clear that’s in there,” she said.

Mr. Mix said he has not read the report and cannot comment on its contents. Since he was not city manager at the time, he said he also could not comment on Ms. Gardner’s allegations against Mr. Finn.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(2) comments

rdsouth

Sounds to me like if the only way to make a complaint is through one person then that's a single point of failure. Maybe there should be a process for appealing to the city council.

minder

I agree with your comment. A process to lodge a harassment claim that only involves one person receiving the information sounds rickety at best. Perhaps the city ought to be providing more information regarding the process as well as the results of any investigation into the matter that took place. I don't believe that someone who has a history of being a valued and effective employee ought to lose their job over bringing forward a claim of workplace harassment.

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