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A divided Evanston City Council voted 6-3 on Nov. 13 to approve a settlement of a lawsuit filed by former Director of Public Works Suzette Robinson in which the City, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar, and Human Resources Director Jennifer Lin were initially named as defendants.
Under the settlement as described by a City attorney, “Plaintiff will dismiss all Individual Defendants with prejudice leaving the City as the sole defendant. Plaintiff executed the Settlement Agreement. Upon approval of Resolution 87-R-17, Plaintiff will dismiss all claims in this litigation against the City with prejudice terminating the lawsuit.”
As part of the settlement, the City will pay Ms. Robinson $500,000.
As an official matter, the City admits no liability. None of the defendants admits to any improper treatment of Ms. Robinson.
The lawsuit arose out of the City’s reorganization of various departments in 2015. One result of the reorganization was the elimination of Ms. Robinson’s job as Public Works Director job, essentially merging the Public Works department with other departments and divisions to form a Public Works Agency. Dave Stoneback became the head of the new agency.
Council’s decision to settle the case did not come quietly or smoothly. At an Administration and Public Works Committee meeting that took place just before the City Council meeting, the measure initially appeared to fail for lack of a second to a motion to forward it to City Council.
“I’m not seconding,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. “In fact I even have a little speech prepared. Is there a second for this item or are we going to dispose of it at committee?”
“Look, I think it is in the interest of the City that we have a discussion at full Council,” said Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward. The committee then voted to forward the resolution to full Council.
The near-failure at committee was a bit odd, considering full Council had almost certainly discussed the matter during a recent executive session. Matters concerning litigation may be legally discussed behind closed doors under the Illinois Open Meetings Act.
At full Council, Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said settlement was in the City’s financial interest. “Obviously making a decision to settle is not something you want to do, but sometimes you have to make a business decision,” he said. He called the settlement a “smart business decision” that would “move past the litigation” and ultimately save the taxpayers money. The City has been paying three separate law firms to litigate the Robinson lawsuit – one to defend the City, another to defend Mr. Bobkiewicz and the third to defend Mr. Farrar and Ms. Lin.
The settlement payment will come from the City’s insurance fund. Expenditures for outside legal counsel made out of the insurance fund do not appear on the City’s regular bills list, so it was not immediately clear how much the City has paid in legal fees to date. An October 2016 budget memo on outside legal counsel showed payments of about $274,000 to the three law firms in 2016, though it was not clear if all such fees were generated by the Robinson case. The RoundTable has sought but not yet received 2017 bills.
Ald. Rainey said she understood and had been advised that “the likelihood of this case being decided in our favor was slim.” But she voted against the settlement, because she said, “I know for a fact that our City Manager in no way discriminated against this woman because of race or gender,” and he did not create an unhealthy work environment.
Both the City’s and Mr. Bobkiewicz’s response to Ms. Robinson’s amended complaint admit that City CFO Marty Lyons “concluded that three of the five healthy work environment complaints Plaintiff lodged against Bobkiewicz were sustained.”
“This woman will go after every last penny she can bleed out of us,” concluded Ald. Rainey.
Ald. Suffredin and Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, joined Ald. Rainey in voting no. The rest of Council voted to approve the settlement.