Suspended Watertown Parks & Rec superintendent speaks out

WWNY Suspended Watertown Parks & Rec superintendent speaks out

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - Shedding light on a report that Watertown wants to keep secret. That report has information in it about an investigation into former City Manager Rick Finn and if he created a hostile work environment for Superintendent of Parks and Recreation Erin Gardner.

After reading it back in January, city council determined there was no hostile work environment.

Now Gardner, who was just suspended without pay, says that's not true - that the report she read tells a different story.

"I will always stand by my decision to turn in my complaint because it was the right thing to do," said Gardner.

Now suspended without pay, the woman who has been in charge of the city's Parks and Recreation Department for 9 years now sits at home, reading documents accusing her of misconduct and insubordination and the city seeks to fire her.

Gardner says her battle with the city started last summer when Finn wanted her department and Department of Public Works crews to share some duties like mowing grass or shoveling sidewalks in city parks.

It was something Gardner wasn't on board with and offered other ideas.

From then on, Gardner says, in meetings, her opinions would be dismissed, she was spoken down to, and on two occasions she had fingers pointed in her face.

“Not only was it derogatory, but it was done in front of other professionals and it makes it worse when you are sitting in a group of people and you’re being spoken to like you’re stupid or 2 years old,” she said. “There was one meeting I walked out of where one employee said, ‘Gosh, I thought you were being reprimanded by your dad.’”

This wasn't the first time Finn's management style was called into question. He had employment controversies in Ohio, Maryland and Michigan. But Finn said, when arriving in Watertown in July 2018, he was exonerated.

Gardner filed her complaint in November. Watertown hired HR Consultants of Glenville, New York.

When the report came back in January, city council members went one by one to City Attorney Robert Syle’s downtown office - some needing 2 hours to read through the 50-plus pages of the report. No copies could be made, no notes could be taken. Then after a meeting on January 24, council determined the allegations did not rise to a hostile work environment.

Gardner tells a different story. When she went to read the report, she was given 5 pages, not 50. She couldn't bring her attorney. And what Gardner says the report found directly contradicts what city council determined.

"I was only given the chance to read 5 pages and the last page that I read did in fact say that there was a hostile work environment created. I am not sure how council or anyone who read the report could say there wasn't."

Gardner said in the 5 pages of the report, she's 100 percent certain it said on multiple dates there was a hostile work environment created.

Gardner is suspended without pay after the city cited her for insubordination and misconduct, saying she shouldn't have spoken with city council members about her complaint against Finn.

She should have gone to human resources. Gardner says she didn't feel she could because she says another previous complaint she filed in September was ignored.

"Did I go to council? Yes. I felt that was my avenue to voice my complaints. But it should be known that council also came to me," she said.

Gardner also said she has had council members reach out to her on various occasions asking about the complaint.

She also has a complaint filed with the state's Division of Human Rights.

Gardner still hopes her side of the story will be validated and policies will change for Watertown and other employees who she says are too afraid to come forward.

“Some of the people who wanted to complain and didn’t, they were fearful they would lose their jobs. You wonder why? I mean, here I am,” she said.

No one wanted to comment on our story Thursday - that’s 3 of 5 city council members who got back to us, acting City Manager Ken Mix and City Attorney Slye.

We also reached out to Rick Finn through a relative, but have not heard back.

Of course, if we could see the report, we’d know first hand what it said, but the city has refused to give it up, despite several attempts by 7 News and our lawyers over the past 3 months.

We’re still trying and if we get it, we’ll tell you what’s in it.

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