More than a dozen people blasted Evanston elected officials Monday night for trying to keep secret an independent investigation report into allegations of widespread sexual misconduct among lifeguards and beach workers on the north suburb’s lakefront.
A provision to keep the report confidential was part of a legally-binding agreement to part ways with the city’s top staffer, City Manager Erika Storlie, who was just appointed to the job last fall.
Evanston’s City Council was set to give final approval to the separation agreement Monday night. But aldermen and newly-elected Mayor Daniel Biss delayed the vote following scathing public comments from residents and activists who say the report being compiled by an outside law firm should be released in full.
“It’s highly inappropriate – and frankly, suspicious – that the city manager, as a condition of her separation, would be required that the report be kept secret before it’s even written,” said Diane Goldring, with the Community Alliance for Better Government.
After a long closed-door session stretching late into the night, the City Council emerged and Biss announced that they’d reconvene Thursday evening to take up the issue.
Negotiations over Storlie’s departure follow a WBEZ investigation in July that revealed 56 female lifeguards and other beach workers sent a petition to city officials last summer complaining of widespread sexual harassment and assault.
Many of the complaints alleged misconduct against underage girls. One woman 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. No one has been charged.
In their petition, the young women called on Evanston officials to apologize publicly for failing to address “the blatant sexism, sexual harassment, assault, racism, and discrimination that occurs at the lakefront.” Organizers of the petition said they met several times with city staff, but were ultimately frustrated by what they saw as an inadequate official response.
The city initially defended its handling of the complaints, saying staffers had acted appropriately.
But following the publication of WBEZ’s July 16 investigation, some Evanston elected officials expressed frustration and anger, saying they were never told about the situation. Storlie and the city’s top human resources official, Jennifer Lin, attended a special closed-door City Council meeting on July 17, but both left long before it ended.
The following week, Storlie told elected officials she had decided to put 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.” The city also hired an outside law firm to investigate the beach workers’ allegations.
Now, the city seems poised to part ways with Storlie, who has worked for Evanston for 16 years. But the very legal document outlining the terms of her exit also has become the subject of controversy.
The separation agreement between Storlie and the city notes that “confidentiality is mutually beneficial to both parties,” and demands that neither party disparage the other. Buried at the bottom is a final stipulation that the city may not talk to “the press or public” about Storlie’s departure. Instead, the city will only respond to media inquiries with a boilerplate statement that lauds her service and wishes her “success in her future endeavors.”
The deal also bars the city from releasing the full report produced by the outside investigation into the scandal — a proposed move that outraged some Evanstonians Monday night.
“We need to know who knew what, when, because this is not an issue that’s related only to one person,” said resident Mary Rosinkski. “I think there are many people who knew something was going on and didn’t stand up and protect our children and our other employees, and that needs to stop.”
She was one of more than a dozen people who spoke out during the meeting’s public comment portion to blast the secrecy clause in Storlie’s separation agreement. Several demanded that the clause be removed from the document before aldermen voted on it.
“There were children who were assaulted by predators,” said resident Diane Thodos, referring to allegations in the beach workers’ petition. “You know, if we wanna have this ‘progressive city’ status really stand up and not just be a hypocrisy, you have to withdraw this confidentiality agreement clause and you have to come clean.”
Storlie’s departure could cost the taxpayers of Evanston dearly. Under the separation agreement, she stands to get a lump sum equal to 20 weeks’ pay.
This year, Evanston officials had budgeted more than $250,000 to pay Storlie, plus another $40,000 for city-paid benefits, including health insurance, life insurance and pension contributions.
Alex Keefe is an editor on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @akeefe.