Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the ugly sexual harassment and death threat complaints filed against the Schenectady Fire Department by Jennifer Costa is that they involved so many people — not just her colleagues and immediate supervisors but several people up the chain of command, including current chief Raymond Senecal, who was a deputy chief at the time.
If Costa’s claims are even remotely true, it’s a serious problem — one that is likely to humiliate the city the way its police department once did and cost taxpayers a bundle to resolve.
Obviously, Mayor Gary McCarthy must get to the bottom of the allegations quickly and with utmost credibility. That means no internal whitewashes. Rather, he needs a disinterested party, such as the district attorney’s office or state police, to investigate, such as was done with the police department several years ago.
Costa’s attorney indicated that complaints will be filed soon with the state Division of Human Rights and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but waiting for those to be resolved is not a good idea because the department — indeed McCarthy’s whole administration — will be under a dark cloud all the while. The mayor says he doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment, so he’ll have to prove that he doesn’t.
He’ll also have to explain what he knew about Costa’s claims and when: It’s hard to believe, given the explosive nature of them and the number of people she says were privy to them, that McCarthy hadn’t heard about them until now. And if he did know, how did he respond? He’s said nothing to indicate that he took them any more seriously than Costa’s version of how Senecal took them — “boys will be boys.”
Senecal’s response, if it is indeed accurate, would be completely unsatisfactory; as would McCarthy’s failure to respond until the complaint was made public. These are serious charges, and not just against one or two people, and not just against rank-and-filers.
Regardless of what transpired with Costa, the city would undoubtedly be better served by a more independent reporting mechanism for whistleblowers — whether it’s the long-dormant Affirmative Action Advisory Board or some other independent watchdog. Letting “boys who will be boys” handle complaints is asking for trouble.
It’s also time for the city — if it doesn’t already have one, and McCarthy won’t say — to institute an anti-sexual harassment training program, and make sure all employees take it.