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Former Parks employee files suit against the city of Watertown

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The fired employee at the center of the Parks and Recreation Department’s financial troubles two years ago has sued the city to get her job back.

On May 3, Brenda M. Harwood, who was terminated from her job as senior account clerk/typist in February, filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court in Syracuse requesting that she be returned to work. Supreme Court Justice Donald A. Greenwood will hear arguments on June 4 and then send the case to Fourth Division Appellate Court in Rochester.

City Manager Sharon A. Addison fired Ms. Harwood, alleging she failed to bill department users and was purposely misleading during the city’s inquiry into the bookkeeping and accounting mess, according to documents obtained by the Times. Ms. Addison concluded the former employee did not follow her bosses’ directives, neglected her job and was “derelict” in her duties.

In court papers, Ms. Harwood’s attorney, D. Jeffrey Gosch, Syracuse, contends his client never should have been fired. She has denied all the accusations from the beginning.

Ms. Harwood’s termination followed a city probe into messy bookkeeping and accounting problems that plagued the Parks Department for years. As the account clerk/typist, she was responsible for collecting money from Recreation Department users and scheduling activities.

In April 2011, the Watertown City Council learned that tens of thousands of dollars went uncollected for years. A 2011 audit determined that Ms. Harwood didn’t use generally accepted bookkeeping and accounting procedures. City officials, however, do not believe any money was stolen.

In court papers, Mr. Gosch, who would not comment about the suit, maintains that Mark D. Karper, the hearing officer who heard her Civil Service case, determined that Ms. Harwood should have retained her job. He determined that there were “mitigating circumstances,” which included “the lack of support and training” and the “lack of action to find fault” with her work until the outside audit found the record-keeping problems.

The lawsuit contends Ms. Harwood’s termination “was excessive in the totality of the circumstances of this matter, including her long, unblemished record of employment and the related seriousness of the allegations against her.”

It also contends that the city failed to follow proper Civil Service procedures in dealing with her case. For instance, Ms. Harwood insists the city manager did not read the transcripts of the Civil Service hearing.

It also alleges that the city was “arbitrary” and “capricious” in the way it handled her termination, since Ms. Harwood had a long career with the Parks Department.

She is asking the court also to award her back wages and the costs incurred by her lawsuit.

As a part of the Civil Service process, the city manager wrote a 17-page document — known as a “final determination” — that notified Ms. Harwood of her Feb. 5 firing from the position she had held for 25 years. The papers were given to her following a Civil Service hearing that was held Aug. 6, Aug. 7 and Oct. 24 of last year in which Ms. Harwood defended the job she did in the department.

“You were placed in a unique position of trust in the Parks and Recreation Department — not simply as clerk, but by your own account, one who was entrusted with several activities requiring the exercise of discretion,” Ms. Addison wrote. “It seems to me that you abused that discretion and, when it finally caught up with you, your defense was essentially ‘nobody in my chain of command really told me’ and ‘there were no written standards.’ I don’t accept those excuses.”

According to the city manager’s document, Ms. Harwood did not complete any invoices for a seven-month period from Aug. 20, 2010, to March 19, 2011, despite a direct order from her boss, now-retired Parks and Recreation Superintendent Jayme M. St. Croix, to make sure she kept on top of the billing. Ms. Harwood also knew she was supposed to bill Parks Department users within two weeks of providing services to them.

Ms. Harwood also failed to turn in $5,410 in cash into the city’s comptroller’s office that she had kept in a drawer in her locked desk in the Parks Department office at the fairgrounds during an eight-month period from July 2010 to March 22, 2011, the city manager wrote. Uncashed checks also were found in her desk, Ms. Addison wrote.

During the Civil Service hearing, both Mr. Karper and the city manager agreed that Ms. Harwood was innocent of the allegation that she tried to keep her boss from finding out about the uncashed checks. Testimony revealed that she did, in fact, tell him about them, Ms. Addison wrote.

As part of the city’s investigation, however, she told the auditors she sent all the uncashed checks back to the Parks Department users, asking that they send new ones because the time to cash them had elapsed. In fact, she failed to send at least one, a $5 check for golf lessons to Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith, Ms. Addison wrote. Ms. Harwood testified that she wanted to talk to him directly about the $5 check.

In recommending that Ms. Harwood keep her job, Mr. Karper also mentioned that she was on vacation and on sick leave for a part of the seven months when the billing was not done.

According to Ms. Addison, Ms. Harwood had months to complete the task since she missed time in December and January. Once other city officials learned of the bookkeeping problems, Ms. Harwood finished the accounting entries in about two days, according to the document.

The hearing officer also cited that her job “evolved” over time and she took on more responsibilities, while Mr. St. Croix admitted he knew little about her accounting duties or how to do them.

Since the department’s financial difficulties came to light, the city restructured Parks and Recreation and implemented new policies.

Ms. Addison, City Attorney Robert J. Slye, Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham and City Council members Jeffrey M. Smith and Teresa R. Macaluso declined to comment because it is a personnel matter. Ms. Harwood, who also was president of Civil Service Employees Association, City Unit 7151, Local 823, could not be reached for comment.

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