The former captain of the Oak Harbor Police Department is suing the city for discrimination, unequal pay and wrongful termination.
Teri Gardner’s attorney, Joan Mell of Fircrest, filed the complaint for damages in Island County Superior Court Aug. 4. Gardner is seeking unspecified damages.
Mell also filed a demand for a jury trial.
GARDNER’S 20-YEAR career as a police officer ended in January after she handed a “forced separation” letter to Police Chief Kevin Dresker, explaining that she was compelled to take an early retirement because of what she felt were Mayor Bob Severns’ unjust actions toward her.
Severns said Thursday he could not comment on ongoing litigation. He said the lawsuit was sent to the city’s insurance provider, who assigned outside counsel to handle it.
The lawsuit recalls an extended period of acrimony and in-fighting in the police department, which city officials say died down after Dresker was named police chief last year. For years, strong personalities in the department led to a division between the patrol and detective divisions.
After he came into office, Severns conducted an investigation into the dysfunction and morale problems in the department and concluded they were a result of poor and unfair management of employees as well as a lack of clear communication in the department.
Severns fired Chief Ed Green. Gardner claimed that the mayor also forced her out. Severns denied that he forced her out or that his actions had been motivated by her gender, but he admitted limiting her responsibilities as the second-in-command because of concerns he had about her performance — specifically her alleged micromanagement of subordinates and unfair doling out of discipline.
THE LAWSUIT outlines the events from Gardner’s perspective.
Under Scott Dudley, the former mayor, Gardner was promoted to captain in 2014. She was promised a wage of $95,000 a year, she claims, but only received $85,000 that year. The city paid her significantly less than her predecessor and successor.
The city also paid her less than the male sergeants who served under her.
“Oak Harbor failed to comply with industry standards wherein captains typically earn up to 20 percent more in wages than the next lower ranking officer,” the lawsuit states.
Gardner complained to the city about the unequal pay, but officials refused to do anything about it, the lawsuit states.
THE LAWSUIT states that Gardner was treated disparately from the men who accepted leadership roles in the department. She claims she was expected to outperform her male counterparts and work longer hours but was more closely scrutinized.
The lawsuit states that city officials invaded her privacy but did not invade the privacy of other male appointees in similar situations. A former captain was married to a subordinate and wasn’t restricted from directing her.
City officials, on the other hand, questioned Gardner multiple times about her relationship with Sgt. Carl Seim, whom she later married. The investigation into the relationship led former police chief Green to write a memo accusing Gardner of being dishonest about the nature of their relationship; Gardner claims this is a false accusation.
THE LAWSUIT says that “a male source intent on discrediting Gardner for self-serving reasons” shared the memo with Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks. Based on the memo, Banks labeled her as a “Brady” cop, which is an officer who has a sustained record of knowingly lying in an official capacity.
Prosecutors are required to hand over “potential impeachment disclosures” to defense attorneys in cases in which a Brady cop is involved or risk having any convictions overturned.
Gardner filed a tort claim in Island County in 2015, asking for $1.5 million in damages because she felt Banks’ decision to label her as a Brady cop was inaccurate and unfair. The county denied the claim.
Banks said at the time that Green’s memo left him with no alternative. He said he would have no problem if Gardner challenged the determination in court and a judge ruled that the disclosure was not necessary.
GARDNER’S LAWSUIT against Oak Harbor also claims that city officials retaliated against her for “asserting her rights and seeking fair and equal treatment as a female commander.” Gardner claims that Severns directed the police chiefs she served under to remove her from the chain of command and take away her meaningful responsibilities.
Severns pressed Gardner to resign twice. When she didn’t, he notified her that he intended to terminate her for “for pre-textual reasons and for reasons related to her protected status and were otherwise retaliatory,” the lawsuit says. Instead, Severns asked that Gardner move out of the police department to perform menial tasks.
In addition, Gardner claims that city officials created a hostile work environment and harassed her by knowingly publishing false statements about her truthfulness and the level of her performance.
“Oak Harbor’s conduct was particularly loathsome to Captain Gardner,” the lawsuits states, “whose reputation for truthfulness and competence was essential to her job functions as a law enforcement officer.”