Watertown fires city’s Parks & Recreation superintendent

Watertown fires city’s Parks & Recreation superintendent
Erin Gardner (Source: WWNY)

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - Watertown has fired Erin Gardner. The former superintendent of the city’s Parks & Recreation Department said she was terminated Tuesday.

Gardner was suspended in May after the city accused her of insubordination and misconduct following Gardner filing a complaint against then-City Manager Rick Finn last fall.

The city disagreed with Gardner speaking with the media and council members about her complaint against former City Manager Rick Finn.

Timothy Farley, the hearing officer overseeing the matter, found three instances of insubordination on the part of Gardner which he recommended warranted her firing. He determined three other instances warranted a reprimand, and three more warranted a demotion.

Farley determined that Gardner wished to publicize her complaint against Finn to bolster “an ongoing campaign to derail the possibility of policy changes concerning comp time and restructuring of the DPW and Office of Park and Recreations.”

“...these proposed management decisions appear to be the primary driver of the Ms. Gardner’s actions," Farley concludes, noting Gardner initiated “direct contact with members of the City Council” while “at the same time declining to file a formal complaint with the Human Relations Director of the City of Watertown.”

Likewise, Farley writes, Gardner’s “contact with Jeff Cole of WWNY...appears to have been part of an on-going campaign by the employee to directly influence policy decisions of the City Manager.”

7 News has reported extensively on Gardner’s accusations and the city’s response, and was the first news organization to report a complaint against Finn had been filed.

The entire report can be read below.

Gardner has maintained she did nothing wrong.

City council disagrees and said, in part, in a news release, “For more than five months now, Ms. Gardner has been intentionally misleading and deceiving the public by maintaining her suspension from City employment was in retaliation for her filing a complaint against former Watertown City Manager Rick Finn...Her suspension was the result of a pattern of behavior where she repeatedly attempted to manipulate Council Members and the media in an effort to influence City policy.”

Gardner said City Manager Ken Mix informed her lawyer that she was terminated.

She said she and her attorney can appeal the decision, but is unsure if she will do that.

Gardner said they sent the city a settlement agreement to see if it wanted to settle and council members decided against it.

Gardner brought hostile work environment claims against Finn. Following an investigation, members of city council said they believed Finn did not create a hostile work environment.

However, a secret report, which was eventually released to the public following legal action by 7 News, reviewed 7 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, investigators reported that they discovered a trend. “Ms. Gardner’s allegation that Mr. Finn treats male employees better than he treats female employees appears to have merit...”

Finn resigned in January.

Gardener said the fact that “Finn did wrong and they sent him away with a severance package; we tried to settle with them give me a severance package and they wouldn’t, it’s hypocritical and a man’s world.”

The state’s Division of Human Rights found ‘probable cause’ in Gardner’s complaints about a hostile work environment and her suspension.

A hearing was held in connection with the hostile work environment and that case is going to trial.

The other complaint will likely get a hearing.

Below is the full statement from Watertown City Council:

Today, in accordance with Erin Gardner’s demand for public proceedings and transparency, the City of Watertown, at the request of the media, released a report prepared by hearing officer Timothy A. Farley following Ms. Gardner’s disciplinary hearing.

For more than five months now, Ms. Gardner has been intentionally misleading and deceiving the public by maintaining her suspension from City employment was in retaliation for her filing a complaint against former Watertown City Manager Rick Finn. As Mr. Farley’s report demonstrates, that is not the case. Instead, as the report outlines, her suspension was the result of a pattern of behavior where she repeatedly attempted to manipulate Council Members and the media in an effort to influence City policy.

As outlined in Mr. Farley’s report, a public hearing held in June uncovered nine instances of misconduct that warranted disciplinary actions, three of which warranted termination. We encourage members of the public to read this report, which details Ms. Gardner’s attempts to use members of City Council and the media for an “on-going campaign to influence City Council members to act against her immediate supervisor on issues which had nothing to do with harassment or discrimination by the employee’s immediate supervisor.” As the report details, Ms. Gardner’s inability to utilize “compensatory time” and her opposition to her supervisor’s plans to save taxpayer dollars by consolidating City departments appear to be the major drivers behind Ms. Gardner’s actions.

In recent months, various media outlets have continued to accuse the City of Watertown of retaliatory behavior against Ms. Gardner. This report vindicates the City of Watertown and supports the City’s actions regarding her employment. We thank Mr. Farley for his diligence in getting to the truth behind Ms. Gardner’s actions.

Below is the hearing officer’s report:

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