Judge: release the secret report

Judge: release the secret report

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - A state Supreme Court judge ordered city of Watertown officials Monday to release a report the city tried to keep secret for months.

The report deals with the conduct of former city manager Rick Finn, who resigned in January.

The report was the result of a complaint filed by city Parks and Recreation Superintendent Erin Gardner, who in 2019 accused Finn of “creating a hostile work environment.”

Basically, Gardner said Finn publicly and frequently disrespected her. The city then hired an outside consulting firm - Public Sector HR Consultants - to do an investigation. Public Sector put the results of its investigation into a report.

The report became a tightly held secret - city council members, one at a time, were allowed to read it at city attorney Robert Slye’s office, but not take notes.

Council did have copies of the report in front of them in January, when they met behind closed doors for hours. They emerged to say Finn had not created a hostile work environment but was resigning anyway.

Gardner subsequently saw a few pages of the report at Slye’s office, and she said it contradicted what the council said - and that the consultant report did, in fact, determine that Finn created a hostile work environment.

7 News began seeking a copy of the report. The city rejected the request. Then it rejected a Freedom of Information Law request the station filed. Then it rejected an appeal. Ultimately, the station took the city to state Supreme Court to try to secure the report’s release.

Monday, state Supreme Court Justice James McClusky did just that.

McClusky rejected every argument the city made.

He said the city couldn’t claim “attorney-client privilege,” both because it didn’t raise the issue soon enough and because it simply “does not apply.”

He rejected the argument that because the council didn’t find a “hostile work environment,” that the report could be kept secret.

He said no to the city’s claim that Finn’s privacy outweighs the public’s right to know.

“The City Manager is the highest level employee of the city - responsible for the oversight of most of the city’s employees. His work is very much in the public interest,” the judge wrote.

“The complaint and Report deal with the City Manager’s interaction with and management of the City’s employees.

“The Report generated by the City’s investigation would seem to be the sort of document the law contemplated should be disclosed, particularly when the effect of the Report was the termination of the City Manager’s employment with the City.”

McClusky notes “The Court has no doubt that some embarrassment will inure to the now former City Manager as a result of the report being made public. But embarrassment is not contemplated by the statute as a reason to deny a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) request.”

“In this instance, the interests of the residents and taxpayers of the City of Watertown out-weigh those of the City Manager.”

McClusky’s decision also confirms what Gardner said - that the consultant report did, in fact, conclude there was a hostile work environment.

“The Report is, of course, the opinion of the Consultant and the City Council is free to (and in fact did) come to a different conclusion regarding whether the City Manager created a hostile workplace...” the judge wrote.

It was not clear Monday evening when the city would provide the report, or whether it might appeal the judge’s ruling. City attorney Robert Slye had no comment at Monday night’s meeting of the Watertown city council.

The city, meanwhile, is attempting to fire Gardner, claiming she acted improperly in the Finn matter. Gardner has brought a case against the city before the state’s Division of Human Rights.

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