Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss and City Council members have issued a public apology to young women who alleged widespread sexual misconduct by supervisors while working at the northern suburb’s lakefront in recent years.
“We apologize for a workplace culture that allowed sexual harassment to occur, and we’re sorry that you had to experience oppressive, uncomfortable, and dangerous behavior,” according to the letter signed by the mayor and nine Council members this week.
WBEZ first reported in July that 56 female lifeguards and other beach employees in Evanston alleged rampant sexual misconduct – often targeting underage girls and young women.
The allegations were detailed in a lengthy petition presented to Evanston officials in the summer of 2020. But the issue remained out of public view until WBEZ’s story appeared a year later.
In the petition, the women wrote that an apology “must include an admission of responsibility for placing underage employees in danger.”
This week’s apology from Evanston’s elected leaders made reference to the long delay in responding as the young women asked them to do from the beginning.
“When you showed the courage to come forward, you were not treated with the prompt compassion and respect you deserve,” the recently elected mayor and the Council members wrote.
In the letter, they thanked “all the brave community members and employees who stepped forward to share you experiences with sexual harassment while employed by the City of Evanston.”
On Tuesday, an organizer of the petition told WBEZ that the apology was a long time coming.
“Obviously, I wish we didn’t have to work as hard as we did for an apology,” the woman said. “While this is an emotional burden I’ll carry through my life, I just hope that this is something no person ever has to go through again.”
Although she no longer works for Evanston, the woman had told WBEZ in the summer that she was motivated to gather signatures for the petition last year after being sexually harassed at work at a beach and making a complaint that did not result in any action against her harasser.
In the most egregious case, another young female lifeguard told WBEZ she was raped by an older employee in a managerial role at a party for Evanston beach workers several years ago, when she was 18.
Neither woman wanted to be identified publicly, and WBEZ generally grants anonymity to people who say they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted.
In their petition, the lakefront employees said Evanston officials failed to address “the blatant sexism, sexual harassment, assault, racism, and discrimination that occurs at the lakefront,” which includes six public beaches on Lake Michigan.
But this week, the city’s elected leaders wrote, “As these incidents have come to our attention, residents understandably have lost some faith in the ability of their government officials to handle delicate and serious situations. We take responsibility for this situation and will do everything in our power to right these wrongs.”
The new apology letter stood in stark contrast to the initial reaction from Evanston city government officials when WBEZ first asked about the allegations. At the time, city officials issued a statement saying they were “confident that the appropriate actions have been taken to respond to the serious issues raised and to ensure a safe, healthy environment for all lakefront staff and visitors.”
But elected officials quickly called a special meeting of the City Council and met for hours behind closed doors with the city manager and another top staff member.
And they quickly vowed to hire an outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation. In the letter to beach workers, Biss and Council members directed complaints to Katie Hill at the law firm of Salvatore, Prescott, Porter & Porter. Hill’s phone number is (312) 283-5711 and her email is email@example.com.
The elected officials promised to “share the outcome of this investigation while protecting the identities of those who have experienced harm.”
After WBEZ’s story, Evanston announced that City Manager Erika Storlie would resign effective this month.
The week after the story appeared on July 16, Storlie told elected officials she had decided to put Evanston’s human resources head, Jennifer Lin, on paid administrative leave as rancor grew about the city’s handling of the original complaints. In a memo obtained by WBEZ, Storlie wrote that the female employees’ petition “was not shared with me or anyone else in the City Manager’s Office or the Law Department.”
Biss – who was elected mayor earlier this year – has said the city government’s initial response to the allegations “represents a serious institutional failure that we must get to the bottom of and rectify.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.