A high-ranking Evanston official has been suspended following a WBEZ investigation into alleged sexual misconduct against teenage girls and young women who have worked as lifeguards or in other jobs at the city’s six Lake Michigan beaches.
The disciplinary action against Jennifer Lin, the city’s head of human resources, came just days after WBEZ reported Friday on a petition that 56 female beach workers had presented to officials in the northern suburb last summer.
And Evanston’s new mayor, Daniel Biss, released a scathing statement Thursday morning, saying the city’s response to the “horrifying allegations” outlined in the WBEZ investigation “represents a serious institutional failure.”
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.”
The most egregious alleged behavior described in the petition involved a young female lifeguard who 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.
Some city officials met with the young women who led the effort after the petition was submitted last year. But the matter had been kept out of the public eye until WBEZ first reported the story on Friday.
In an email this week to elected officials, City Manager Erika Storlie wrote, “Based on the conclusion that the Petition was not shared with me or anyone else in the City Manager’s Office or the Law Department, I believe discipline is necessary.”
Toward that end, she said, the city’s “Human Resources Division Manager” was put on paid administrative leave immediately. Lin is a lawyer and has been in the job since January 2015, according to state attorney registration records and her LinkedIn profile. City budget documents show her pay and benefits total nearly $139,000 a year.
In the email obtained by WBEZ, Storlie told the City Council that she and the city government’s top lawyer also were considering punishment against other employees found to have botched the handling of the petition.
“I am discussing with Corporation Council any additional discipline that should be imposed for anyone else who was in receipt of the Petition but failed to properly bring it to their supervisor,” Storlie wrote.
Lin could not be reached for comment. Messages sent to her city email address generated an automatic out-of-office response.
A spokesman for the city did not immediately respond to messages.
One of the four organizers of the petition drive said Lin had met with her and other young women who worked at the beaches and Lin asked organizers to disclose the names of women who detailed their sexual misconduct allegations anonymously in the petition.
The petition organizer spoke on condition of anonymity, saying she had been sexually harassed by male co-workers at the beach and felt shunned in retaliation for being a whistleblower last year.
This week’s action against Lin came in sharp contrast to the initial response from city officials after WBEZ asked them about the allegations. Last week, city staff defended their handling of the explosive complaints from the lifeguards and other beach employees.
Officials said they had taken many “appropriate actions,” such as immediately ordering sexual harassment training and appointing a “trusted” parks employee to act as a liaison between the lakefront workers and the city’s Human Resources Department.
City officials also initially said they were unable to carry out other discipline because of “the anonymous nature of the allegations provided, the resistance of seasonal staff to provide personal accounts of the allegations, the seasonal employees’ request that the issues not be investigated further and the fact that many of the allegations related to off-duty, after-hours behavior.”
In fact, the vast majority of the comments on the petition described misconduct that was said to have happened at work over the past several years.
The petitioners had called for the firing of two male lifeguards. Officials said one of the men was not rehired this year, and the other quit Friday, shortly after publication of the WBEZ story. WBEZ is not identifying the two men because they have not been charged with crimes.
On Saturday evening, the City Council met for about three hours in a closed-door, special meeting to discuss the issue. Storlie and Lin were involved in the meeting but left the room before it ended.
And on Monday, the city announced that officials would hire an outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation into all aspects of the situation.
Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss, who took office in May, declined to comment on Lin’s suspension.
But Biss sent out a lengthy statement Thursday, saying the city’s response to the petition from the beach workers “represents a serious institutional failure that we must get to the bottom of and rectify.”
Referring to the petition, the mayor wrote: “It seems obvious that anyone reading this document would instantly commit to doing anything and everything possible to address the issue. Nonetheless, it is apparently the case that nobody even showed it to the City’s most senior leaders.”
Another member of the City Council, Cicely Fleming, also has said she was not aware of the issue until the WBEZ story and thought city staff should have informed elected officials.
Biss said the four organizers of the petition and more than 50 signatories “did our whole community an enormous service.”
“So far, the City of Evanston has not given them the reaction they deserved,” Biss said. “I am committed to changing that.”
In his statement, the mayor also disclosed that he first learned of the petition in an email from an unnamed “community member” on June 19 and that he received a copy of the document on June 24.
He said he met June 30 with parks and human resources staff but “was not persuaded that the City had done all it could have done” for the petitioners.
Biss also said he has met with three current and former lakefront employees, including an organizer of the petition. A week ago, two of them told him about their “serious concerns about how the City had responded.”
The situation in Evanston echoes similar allegations involving lifeguards for the Chicago Park District. There, the agency’s internal watchdog has been conducting a wide-ranging probe into accusations of harassment, abuse and assault for 16 months.
Investigators in Chicago said they found strong evidence to substantiate serious accusations against three senior lifeguards, who have been placed on the park district’s do-not-hire list.
But they are still looking into allegations against dozens of other park district workers in their “broad” probe at the city’s beaches and pools, according to confidential documents obtained by WBEZ.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. You can follow him @dmihalopoulos.