OGDENSBURG — A sexual harassment complaint against a city councilor has been investigated by the Ogdensburg Public Library on behalf of one of its employees.
A report was originally submitted to the library’s Board of Trustees by Executive Director Penny J. Kerfien on March 15, alleging the library’s sexual harassment policy was violated when Councilor Steven M. Fisher sexually harassed her in a Facebook comment posted to the Friends of the Ogdensburg Public Library page in February.
Though the library board has maintained confidentiality, the Times is choosing to identify the parties due to the public nature of the incident leading to the complaint.
Following the investigation headed by the board’s Personnel Committee, a 15-page document was presented to the full board during its regular monthly meeting last week. Board President Michelle A. McLagan said trustees approved the report and sent it to the city manager’s office on Friday.
City Manager Stephen P. Jellie said he received the document, adding he will address the complaint “in a timely manner” after consulting with legal counsel.
Ms. Kerfien deferred to Ms. McLagan for all inquiries. Mr. Fisher did not respond to a request for comment by press time. Following the open portion of Monday night’s City Council meeting, councilors moved into executive session to discuss pending litigation. When the executive session concluded, Mayor Jeffrey M. Skelly said Mr. Fisher had left through the back door.
The city’s sexual harassment policy, outlined in Article 12 of the City Charter’s Administrative Regulations, requires “a prompt and thorough investigation that ensures due process for all parties, whenever management receives a complaint about sexual harassment, or otherwise knows of possible sexual harassment occurring.”
The policy applies to all city employees, applicants, interns, contractors and anyone conducting city business.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment — which violates state and federal law — includes unwelcome sexual advances or attention, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature in the workplace or learning environment.
The library board’s investigative document, obtained Monday by the Times, analyzes Mr. Fisher’s Feb. 26 Facebook comment, posted in response to an update about the library funding referendum set to appear on the May ballot for city school district voters. The library board is hoping for $225,000 in funding from property taxpayers to boost the steady decline in city contributions over the last six years.
The update was posted at 12:47 p.m., and some time before 2:05 p.m., Mr. Fisher referenced Ms. Kerfien in his response: “Penny she gotten a little bitchy. She’s only worried about herself. Even when we gave them money it was never enough I hope it’s voted down. It would reduce our tax cut of 10 per cent to 5. Let’s not forget we pick board members. I won’t!”
Before the comment was deleted, library staff screen-captured the response.
Citing the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the board’s report defines “bitchy” as “characterized by malicious, spiteful or arrogant behavior.”
“At no point has the library board witnessed or characterized Ms. Kerfien’s behavior as ‘malicious, spiteful, or arrogant,’” the report reads. “Ms. Kerfien has spent the past five years of her career advocating for fair and reasonable library funding from the City of Ogdensburg.”
Ms. Kerfien holds a master’s degree in library and information science from Syracuse University and is a state-certified librarian.
“Not only does Ms. Kerfien’s education and professional experience deserve a high level of respect from city officials, the work that she has done to provide library programs and services to city residents with an ever-shrinking budget deserves recognition and respect,” the report continues. “Women in leadership roles should not be, under any circumstances, demeaned and targeted by gender-based slurs or insults such as ‘bitchy.’”
From an evaluation of each line of Mr. Fisher’s comment, the board made seven recommendations, including that Mr. Fisher abstain from any future discussion and votes regarding library funding and the appointment of trustees. The board also recommends the city consult with a third-party human resources agency to investigate Mr. Fisher’s “actions and statements.”
As the board awaits a response from the city, Ms. McLagan on Monday afternoon said the matter is “very unfortunate.”
“I hope we can all move forward from this with a better relationship — the library, the city and the community,” she said.