Watertown mayor, in interview, defends Gardner firing, criticizes 7 News

WWNY Watertown mayor, in interview, defends Gardner firing, criticizes 7 News

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - Watertown mayor Jeff Smith is defending the city’s decision to fire Parks and Recreation Superintendent Erin Gardner.

In an at-times combative interview Friday, Smith also blamed 7 News for what he called one-sided reporting of the Gardner affair.

Gardner was fired a week ago, after a report from a hearing officer concluded Gardner was insubordinate. Basically, the hearing officer determined Gardner violated city rules by going directly to members of the city council with complaints that her “comp time” was being taken away, and that her department was being re-organized.

What’s more, the report concluded, Gardner used her complaint that former city manager Rick Finn created a “hostile work environment” as a way to pressure city officials.

“It was about her having comp time taken away, and about the consolidation. Those were not issues she could come directly to the council,” Smith said.

“Those were issues she should have been going to her supervisor with.”

Instead, the report said, Gardner turned to 7 News anchor Jeff Cole, who Gardner knows from organizing community events together, and leaked the fact that she was filing a complaint against Finn.

Cole verified some of the information through then-councilman Cody Horbacz, and in November of last year, 7 News reported as much of the story as could be confirmed - that a female department head had filed a complaint against Finn.

Smith said Friday, that’s not fair.

“What I think is frustrating from the city’s standpoint is the reporting on it. It’s not objective,” Smith said.

In particular, Smith pointed to a story 7 News broadcast in May, after Gardner was suspended from her job, as an example of being one-sided.

“Every single step of the way, the reporting was ‘This was retaliation.’ That’s what Miss Gardner put out, and that’s what 7 News put out,” Smith said.

In fact, the May 28 story prominently noted “city council determined there was no hostile work environment,” contrary to Gardner’s claim.

The story also noted 7 News efforts to get city officials to talk - “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.”

Since then, various 7 News stories on the Gardner matter have reported both Gardner’s claims and the city’s argument that Gardner was insubordinate - see examples here, here and here.

In addition, 7 News published the entirety of two reports: the one which concluded that Gardner was insubordinate and should be fired, and the so-called “Finn report,” which investigated the conduct of former city manager Rick Finn.

The Finn report, while it dismissed many of Gardner’s claims as exaggerated or not violations of city policy, also found Finn wasn’t fully honest with investigators. It ultimately concluded that Gardner’s claim of a hostile work environment “appears to have merit” and that Finn violated city policy with the way he treated female employees.

Smith argued that what Rick Finn did had absolutely nothing to do with Gardner’s dismissal.

“Nobody is disagreeing that Mr. Finn was inappropriate at times,” Smith said. Finn resigned in January, after city council reviewed the Finn report.“Nobody’s disagreed with that. But it wasn’t what the (Gardner) complaint was, and Miss Gardner was not terminated or suspended because of this report.”

Erin Gardner has won two preliminary rulings from the state Division of Human Rights, one over her claim of a hostile work environment, and one over her subsequent suspension from her job in May while city officials tried to fire her.

Smith gave 7 News an email from one of Gardner’s lawyers, in which he offers to withdraw the claims in exchange for 18 months' salary and health insurance; an additional six months salary; her lawyers' fees; removing materials from her personnel file related to the accusations against her; providing her a “neutral” reference letter.

“Doesn’t sound like that’s there’s a core belief that this is about other employees or how she was treated. Sounds like it’s ‘Pay me off,’” Smith said.

7 News informed Gardner of the mayor’s comments and is extending to her a chance to respond.

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