WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - Rick Finn wasn’t the first Watertown city manager Parks and Recreation Superintendent Erin Gardner complained about.
That came out at a hearing at city hall on Friday to determine if Gardner – who’s suspended without pay – can be fired.
The city claims Gardner violated city rules by revealing her complaint against Finn to the media; by talking about Finn and other department heads to members of the city council and to people who weren’t a part of city government; and by lying about who revealed her identity to the media.
Gardner insisted Friday she did nothing wrong, that she tried to follow the city’s chain of command, but nobody would listen to her. She said she never set out to embarrass Finn, but wants to spare other female employees of the city the kind of humiliation she says she endured.
Former city council member Cody Horbacz testified Friday morning. He said Gardner came to him with complaints about Sharon Addison, who was city manager before Finn.
“There were complaints about the way Ms. Addison was managing,” Horbacz said, “that she didn’t respect council, that she had her own agenda.”
Horbacz also testified Gardner revealed to him on November 6, 2019 that she had filed a complaint of a hostile work environment against Finn, and encouraged him to talk to WWNY anchor and managing editor Jeff Cole about the matter.
7 News reported that night that a female department head - Gardner was not revealed as the person filing the complaint until January - had complained about Rick Finn’s conduct.
“In retrospect, I feel the intent was to sway public opinion and pressure the council,” Horbacz testified.
He also said Gardner complained about other city department heads, including comptroller Jim Mills and Department of Public Works chief Pat Keenan.
Gardner contends that she’s being singled out for firing because she filed the complaint against Finn, which ultimately led to him quitting.
“This proceeding has absolutely nothing to do with Ms. Gardner filing a complaint - nothing,” city attorney Bob Slye said during Friday’s proceeding.
Gardner’s lawyer countered that Gardner’s decision to complain about Finn has “everything” to do with the city trying to fire Gardner.
Gardner’s lawyer, Sarah Baum, pointed out Gardner has an “outstanding” record as Parks and Recreation superintendent, and that she had a right - following the city’s employee handbook - to talk with city council members about her concerns.
Slye said that Gardner - by revealing her complaint but remaining anonymous for two months - ensured “the city manager was subject to ridicule.”
In her testimony, Gardner admitted she told 7 News anchor and managing editor Jeff Cole she was filing a complaint against Finn, but said she went to him as a friend, not as a member of the media.
“Jeff and I are friends,” said said. “I went to him about a lot of my problems.”
Likewise, Gardner said she talked with now-mayor, then candidate Jeff Smith last fall about her difficulties with Finn. “I was going to him for advice,” she said.
Gardner has said Finn didn’t take her as seriously as he did male department heads, talked down to her and on at least one occasion stuck his finger in her face. The city council concluded Finn did not create a hostile work environment as Gardner had charged, but he quit anyway.
Gardner also repeatedly denied saying bad things about other city employees, current and former.
Also testifying Friday was city human resources manager Matthew Roy, who said Gardner came to him with “concerns” in early September but did not file an official complaint for another two months.
And Roy said Gardner lied about how her complaint ended up going public.
“She - Ms. Gardner - told me the wrong name of the person who leaked to the media,” Roy said.
“She was the leak.”
Gardner denies that.
Current city council members Lisa Ruggiero and Jesse Roshia also testified. Roshia said he was “uncomfortable” when Gardner referred to Department of Public Works superintendent Pat Keenan as an “a__hole,” which Gardner denies saying.
Ruggiero said Gardner also approached her about talking to 7 News, but she declined. “I didn’t think it was proper,” she said.
Now that the hearing is done, the lawyers for both sides will have to submit paperwork, and a hearing officer will issue an opinion about whether Gardner is guilty or not of the charges against her, and whether she should be fired. The final decision is up to city manager Ken Mix.