Secret Finn Report: Gardner allegations have “merit”

Secret Finn Report: Gardner allegations have “merit”
Watertown City Manager Rick Finn (Source: WWNY)

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - “Taken collectively, Mr. Finn’s treatment of female employees interviewed reveals conduct towards female staff that is intimidating and offensive. Mr. Finn’s behavior violates the City’s policy on Non-Discrimination and Harassment (Including Sexual Harassment) in the Workplace, which specifically prohibits conduct by any employee that disrupts or interferes with another’s work performance or that creates an intimidating, offensive, or hostile work environment.”

That’s the last paragraph of a report written by Public Sector HR Consultants. The group was hired to investigate suspended Watertown Parks and Recreation Superintendent Erin Gardner’s hostile work environment claims against former City Manager Rick Finn.

The report concludes, “Ms. Gardner’s allegation that she has been confronted with a hostile work environment appears to have merit.”

7 News received the document Saturday evening, after winning a court case to have the secret report released.

How did we get to the release of the report?

In November of 2019, Gardner decided to file a formal complaint with the city, alleging Finn had created a “hostile work environment” by the way he treated her. At first, her identity was a secret, though she eventually revealed herself to 7 News as the person behind the complaint.

The city responded to the complaint by hiring Public Sector H.R. Consultants, a company based in Glenville, NY, to do the investigation. H.R. Consultants conducted interviews with nine city employees, including Gardner and Finn, in November and December.

On January 21 of this year, H.R. Consultants sent city attorney Robert Slye a copy of the report. City council members were allowed to view the report in Slye’s office, but not make copies or take notes. A few days later, Slye, the council and the report went behind closed doors for nearly four hours.

When it was over, Mayor Jeff Smith said council had determined Finn had not created a hostile work environment - we now know for certain this contradicts what the city’s own report found - but he was resigning anyway because of other issues that had come up in the investigation.

According to a separation agreement between the city and Finn, “Given the accumulated stress of the investigation and his decision to move beyond its claims, Finn has determined to resign his position as City Manager and the City Council has agreed to accept his resignation.”

That was not the end of it.

Months later, at the end of May, Gardner was suspended by interim city manager Ken Mix. She was accused of insubordination and misconduct for her actions in connection with the Finn matter. The city has moved to fire Gardner, but as of now she is still on the city payroll, though not working.

As for the report itself, the city repeatedly refused to release any part of it, despite Freedom of Information Act filings by 7 News and the Watertown Times. 7 News ended up taking the city to court, and state Supreme Court Justice James McClusky ruled the city had to release it. The city appealed the judge’s decision, and ultimately released the version you see now - with many of the names of witnesses and participants “redacted” or blacked out.

The Report

The report is 33 pages long, not including attached exhibits.

The investigation focused on specific meetings from July 24, 2019 through October 7th of that year, which included Finn, Gardner, and others. Many of those meetings were about Finn’s plan to consolidate parts of the Parks and Rec. Department with the Dept. of Public Works.

As you read the report, it’s clear that Gardner and Finn had disagreements on several occasions. Gardner has claimed at times that Finn’s actions and words toward her were discriminatory based on gender and hostile.

The report reviews seven specific examples brought forward by Gardner. Examined individually, it concluded on most occasions that Finn’s behavior didn’t violate City Policy.

However, in its interviews with other female City workers, HR Consultants reported that it discovered a trend. “Ms. Gardner’s allegation that Mr. Finn treats male employees better than he treats female employees appears to have merit...”

In a December 3, 2019 interview, a woman who has worked for the city since 2005 said “that working under Mr. Finn makes her feel like she has gone back to the 1960s.”

Here’s more from that portion of the report:

“When asked if Mr. Finn has ever made her feel mistreated, minimized, or excluded as a female employee of the City, (redacted) responded that Mr. Finn treats her like she is subservient and like it is 1962. When asked to provide an example, (redacted) stated that Mr. Finn will ask her to come into his office to physically hand him something that is already on his desk."

“...(redacted) opined that Mr. Finn would never hire a male (redacted) because he believes that a (redacted) position is a women’s role.”

When looking at Gardner’s specific claims, the report found she was ignored by Finn at an August 26th meeting when she wanted to address pay inequity among staff members.

The report said, “Throughout the consolidation process, her (Gardner’s) suggestions were ignored and even met with outright frustration and overt hostility.”

The report also details an October 7th meeting, where Finn “made a veiled threat to separate Parks from Recreation and task her (Gardner) with ‘filling the Arena’ in response to her resistance to the consolidation process.”

The report indicates that Finn denied that threat. However, Gardner had recorded the entire conversation, which was reviewed by HR Consultants, proving that veiled threat had been issued to Gardner.

That recording also proved other details that Finn had denied in his interview with the consultants. The report reads, “This falsification calls into question the credibility of Mr. Finn’s responses throughout the interview, as it is suspect that he could not recall so many noteworthy incidents that were included in Ms. Gardner’s complaint."

“It is the conclusion of this investigation that Mr. Finn was not fully honest or forthcoming in his responses to the investigator.”

The Mayor’s Press Release

Watertown Mayor Jeff Smith issued a statement Saturday night, writing, that upon its review of the report, city council found that Finn’s behavior did not meet the standard of creating a hostile work environment, as defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Society for Human Resources Management, which say, “A hostile work environment is characterized by severe, pervasive, and persistent behavior.”

“In the report, Erin Gardner described seven specific incidents she believed supported allegations that Mr. Finn created a hostile work environment for her and subjected her to discriminatory behavior,” Smith wrote. “The investigation determined six of those claims were unfounded. In the report, allegations are characterized as ‘exaggerated,’ lacking evidence and in all but one instance, are described as not rising 'to the level of violation of City policy.”

Smith also wrote, “Personality conflicts, rudeness, and isolated incidents do not constitute a hostile work environment.”

So why was the report kept secret? Smith says it was out of respect for the privacy of City employees who participated in the investigation.

Read the full report below:

This is Mayor Smith’s press release from Saturday, October 17th:

Copyright 2020 WWNY. All rights reserved.