Evanston officials said Monday they will commission an independent investigation into accusations of sexual misconduct by employees at lakefront beaches.
The move was prompted by Friday’s WBEZ story on a petition signed by more than 50 female lifeguards and other Evanston beach workers. The young women had brought their concerns to city officials about a year ago, vividly detailing accusations of sexual harassment and abuse by coworkers and bosses on the lakefront – with some of the alleged incidents targeting underage girls.
City officials initially said they had acted appropriately.
But newly-elected Mayor Daniel Biss and the Evanston City Council huddled in a hastily-called, closed-door meeting for about three hours on Saturday evening. And on Monday, officials issued a new statement that struck a very different tone than their initial comments to WBEZ last week.
Although they came short of the beach workers’ demand for a public apology, city officials now said the four workers who organized the petition “exhibited remarkable courage and selflessness in coming forward.”
“The City owes them, and the many others who shared concerns through a petition circulated among lakefront staff, a profound debt of gratitude,” according to the statement issued Monday afternoon.
Officials promised that they will hire “an outside firm to conduct a thorough, impartial investigation of every aspect of the situation, and will be sharing further updates with the community in the near future.”
The vow of a transparent investigation contrasted sharply with the strict secrecy that Evanston officials had maintained afterthe petition was presented to them in July 2020.
But the statement on Monday did not appear to address all of the concerns that have arisen since WBEZ broke the story.
Earlier Monday, a member of the City Council cited the story in calling for “swift and immediate action” against the city manager and other top staff at Evanston’s city hall. Alderwoman Cicely Fleming told WBEZ she was not aware of the issue until last week.
And Fleming says it was clear to her that staff should have told the council members about the petition long ago.
The report on the allegations in Evanston followed WBEZ stories about similar complaints from lifeguards for the Chicago Park District. That agency’s internal watchdogs have been conducting an investigation into allegations of widespread harassment, abuse and assault at Chicago’s beaches and pools since March 2020, records show.
In Evanston, Fleming said, she thought there must be “immediate and swift action for staff who totally dropped the ball,” including possibly firing those employees.
“I would expect, if nothing else, the city manager would have made us aware of these things,” said Fleming, who represents Evanston’s 9th Ward. “There were many opportunities.”
The city manager, Erika Stolie, and the manager of human resources for Evanston, Jennifer Lin, were involved in Saturday’s private session of the council but left the room while the meeting was still going on.
There was no mention in Monday’s statement from city officials of any new discipline or other personnel actions involving staff.
City staff met repeatedly with the organizers of the petition drive, and they say they immediately called for sexual harassment training after receiving the complaints in July 2020.
But one woman who participated in the petition effort – and who alleges she was subjected to sexual harassment while working at the beach – told WBEZ she did not believe city officials were committed to truly addressing the problem at the lakefront.
The petition, which was signed by 56 beach workers, called on the city to “apologize directly to survivors, their families and all lakefront employees for consistently placing underaged employees in oppressive, uncomfortable and dangerous situations and in close proximity with sexual predators.” The women asked that officials issue the apology publicly.
Fleming said the accusations were “news to me.”
“I read the story about Chicago, but I had not heard anything about Evanston,” she said.
Evanston has six beaches on Lake Michigan, and 144 people are working there for the city’s parks department this summer.
The petition named two men who worked there for Evanston. City officials said they decided not to rehire one of the men this summer. The other man resigned Friday. Neither of them has been charged with wrongdoing.
Fleming noted that the petition detailed many disturbing allegations, describing a toxic and misogynistic work environment.
“It wasn’t just the one-bad-apple narrative,” she said. “I think there needs to definitely be some accountability. I think that accountability should include, definitely, looking at terminations because there were many balls dropped.”
Fleming said the council only has the power to discipline or fire the city manager, but she believed other staff bore responsibility also.
“There are many staff who, in my opinion, did not live up to the standard of their job performance in this situation,” she said. “The more I learn, the more concerns I have about the way this was handled.”
On Saturday, during public comments before the council members began their private session, several people in Evanston expressed outrage at the city’s handling of the complaints from the beach workers. Activists from the Community Alliance For Better Government had demanded that Evanston’s council immediately authorize an independent investigation.
On Monday, the group’s president, Rick Marsh, said the city’s handling of the situation represented an obvious failure of his local government to act with transparency and accountability when confronted with “the appalling, numerous and ongoing allegations of sexual abuse” in the city’s parks department.
“Everybody seems to have been taken aback,” Marsh said of council members. “This is all new to everyone there.
“The city manager had not brought this to public attention,” he added. “From a transparency standpoint, that is really unacceptable.”
Dickelle Fonda, a psychotherapist from Evanston who helped found the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said she was upset to find out that “this was happening in Evanston, where we want to think we’re woke.”
She did not accept the city’s explanation that officials ordered sexual harassment training for beach employees last year.
“It should have been done 15 years ago,” Fonda said. “The response from the city was just not sufficient. When [the young women] finally came forward to speak about it, there seems to be a culture of tolerance for that kind of sexual harassment, verbal abuse – at the very top levels at the city.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.