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 — Fired last week from her job as the city parks and recreation superintendent, Erin E. Gardner says the city has ruined her career.

Ms. Gardner was terminated Tuesday from her job following the City Council’s release of a hearing officer’s disciplinary report that recommended she be dismissed.

“What they have made me go through is unethical, immoral and wrong,” she said, adding she’s emotionally, psychologically and financially drained.

City Manager Kenneth A. Mix fired her after reading the blistering report by hearing officer Timothy A. Farley, a local attorney retained by the city to investigate her potential punishment.

In November 2019, Ms. Gardner filed an internal complaint accusing then-city manager Richard F. Finn of causing a hostile work environment.

Ms. Gardner called Mr. Farley’s report biased, saying her firing was in retaliation for her complaint against Mr. Finn.

Her comments came after Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith blasted her for a separation agreement that was proposed by Ms. Gardner’s attorney, Ron Dunn, Albany, that would have cost the city $220,000.

Calling it “a list of demands,” Mayor Smith provided The Watertown Daily Times with a copy of the separation agreement the City Council rejected on the night before she was terminated.

The separation agreement would have allowed Ms. Gardner to resign, discontinue further disciplinary action against her and drop legal action by her against the city.

According to the agreement, she would have received 18 months’ salary that would have allowed her to be vested for her retirement, six months’ salary for pain and suffering, continue her health insurance for 18 months and reimburse her for her legal expenses.

The agreement also would have removed any information about the situation involving her accusations from her personnel file and provide any future potential employers with a neutral letter about her job performance.

Mayor Smith said he decided to release the separation agreement after hearing Ms. Gardner complained Mr. Finn received severance pay and she did not.

He also didn’t like social media posts Ms. Gardner released that she filed the employee complaint to help protect her coworkers from the treatment under Mr. Finn.

The mayor said the separation agreement showed she only cared about herself, not about her coworkers, adding she “was trying to line her pockets.”

Her attorney provided council members with the agreement last Monday night at 6 p.m., an hour before their meeting was to begin, he said.

Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero said council members rejected it, saying they were outlandish demands that far exceeded the month’s pay and health benefits Mr. Finn received when he resigned last January.

“She would be rewarded for bad behavior,” the councilwoman said.

After hearing a day’s worth of testimony on June 26, Mr. Farley concluded Ms. Gardner should be dismissed, demoted and reprimanded on charges of insubordination and misconduct charges regarding the way she handled her allegations against Mr. Finn.

Mr. Farley concluded she repeatedly attempted to manipulate council members and the media in an effort to influence city policy.

The relationship between Ms. Gardner and Mr. Finn soured after he proposed consolidating the mowing crews of her department with the Department of Public Works. She disagreed with the proposal.

Mr. Farley also wrote Ms. Gardner leaked to the media that she filed the internal complaint about Mr. Finn.

The mayor also said Ms. Gardner’s accusations were “debunked” in a report conducted by an independent consultant, Public Sector HR Consultants, Glenville, that was hired to look into her claims about Mr. Finn.

The mayor insisted Ms. Gardner can only blame herself for “her own actions” of why she was terminated.

But Ms. Gardner said she was advised by Mayor Smith on her complaint against Mr. Finn before Mr. Smith was mayor. Other department heads overwhelmingly also wanted to see Mr. Finn gone from City Hall, she said.

“I know they used me to get rid of him,” she said.

Mayor Smith explained he was in office only three weeks when Mr. Finn resigned, so he had little to do with the situation, calling it “her conspiracy theory” that she was used to get rid of Mr. Finn.

It was her attorney’s recommendation to offer the separation agreement. It would have prevented further legal action by both sides, she said, adding council could have made a counter offer.

Ms. Gardner said she hopes to move on with her life, but it’s been difficult to find a new job, especially under the local economy with the pandemic.

She filed the complaint against Mr. Finn because of the way he treated her and other female city employees. She wanted to see changes in policies in the way employees are treated after they submit complaints like hers, she said.

The report by Public Sector determined other female employees revealed Mr. Finn was “intimidating and offensive.”

Ms. Gardner has two cases pending with the state Division of Human Rights in regards to her accusations against Mr. Finn and the city. Hearing dates with the Human Rights Division have not been scheduled.

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

That report concluded the charges against Mr. Finn were mostly unfounded, but did confirm allegations Mr. Finn treated female employees differently than their male counterparts.

The city initially refused to release the report, citing 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. State Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky agreed to redact employee names.

Accusing the city of a “cover-up,” Judge McClusky later ruled more names in the independent report had to be made public.

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