Fired Watertown employee files court papers to get her job back

Fired Watertown employee files court papers to get her job back
Erin Gardner (Source: WWNY)

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - Fired Watertown Parks and Recreation Superintendent Erin Gardner has filed paperwork in State Supreme Court in a bid to get her job back.

Gardner’s attorneys, Gleason, Dunn, Walsh & O’shea, of Albany, call Gardner’s firing “retaliatory.” They’re looking for Gardner’s reinstatement to her manager’s position, along with back pay and benefits.

Gardner is the city employee who filed a hostile work environment complaint against former Watertown City Manager Rick Finn back in 2019. That complaint sparked a third party investigation into Finn’s behavior, and determined that while Gardner’s claims didn’t rise to the level of a violation of city policy, her complaints against Finn had merit.

The report found Finn’s conduct toward female workers was “intimidating and offensive”- one woman interviewed as part of the investigation said, “that working under Mr. Finn makes her feel like she has gone back to the 1960s.”

Another woman interviewed had similar complaints about Finn’s behavior.  The report concluded that Finn had violated the city’s policy on Non-Discrimination and Harassment in the Workplace.

Finn resigned in January of last year, after city lawmakers reviewed the report behind closed doors.  The report stayed hidden until WWNY and its parent company Gray Media Group won a court battle, forcing the city to release the document.

Gardner was suspended by the city in May of 2020 and fired in November.  The city accused of her of insubordination and misconduct, for talking to city council members and 7 News anchor Jeff Cole about the complaint (Cole went on to verify some of the information through then-councilman Cody Horbacz, and reported as much of the story that could be confirmed at the time).

Gardner’s motivations for doing so were brought into question at a June 2020 disciplinary hearing, prior to her termination. Hearing officer Timothy Farley determined Gardner was waging an “ongoing campaign” to influence city policy and wasn’t happy with Finn’s plans to change comp time policies and combine functions within the Parks and Rec and Public Works departments.

7 News reported that Farley did receive a copy of the formerly-secret Finn report, but did not consider it when making his decision, because Gardner’s attorney didn’t enter it into evidence at the time of the hearing.

Farley found a number of instances of insubordination on Gardner’s part.  Some, according to Farley, warranted disciplinary actions. Others warranted demotion or termination.

The city went with termination.

So where is the story now?  Gardner’s petition in Supreme Court argues that the city was retaliating against her for blowing the whistle on Finn when she was fired last year, in violation of New York Civil Service Law.

A portion of her argument relies on a passage in the Watertown City Employee Handbook, which indicates that a worker that sees or knows about bad behavior at work should go to their supervisor, the city manager, or any City Council member.

Gardner’s lawyers say she had little help from the city’s human resource manager when expressing her concerns about Finn in September of 2019.  They say the record of her disciplinary hearing showed it was a City Council member, Lisa Ruggiero, who informed Gardner that she would have to file an official complaint form against Finn.

Gardner’s lawyers also claim the city’s charges against her fell outside an 18 month statute of limitation set by Civil Service Law.

We reached out to Watertown Mayor Jeff Smith, who didn’t wish to comment.

The entire 19 page petition can be read below:

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