The crowd at the July 15 City Council meeting spilled over into the antechamber.                 RoundTable photo

Evanston City Council members and supporters of Evanston City Clerk Devon Reid are at deep odds after a near public censure of the Clerk for alleged violations of the City’s healthy work environment policy.

At their July 15 meeting, aldermen voted 5-4 to table a proposed Resolution calling for public rebuke of the Clerk for alleged workplace violations, leaving the measure to be reconsidered at a later date.

Introducing the Resolution, Mayor Stephen Hagerty noted that officials had an item before them “that none of us, and I certainly don’t, take lightly, on the agenda tonight,” referring to the censure.

“It’s not something this City does often,” he said. “I’ve seen heated debates in the past by this body about that issue, but I felt the issues were serious enough to bring to the Council.”

The City’s Healthy Work Environment Policy sets out what employees must follow in their communications and actions at work, Mayor Hagerty said.

An employee found to have violated the policy is subject to discipline, which can range from a verbal reprimand to termination, he said.

In this instance, the City received work environment complaints filed by a few employees against Mr. Reid, and because a public official was involved, the City turned to outside counsel to investigate the complaints, the Mayor said.

At the July 15 meeting, the proposed Resolution recommended that the Council censure the City Clerk for his alleged unprofessional communication and harassment of a few employees and violations of the Open Meetings Act and Council rules, he said. The Clerk’s position is an elected one and independent from the Mayor and City Council.

“I want to stress that the City Council takes its obligation of harassment of our City employees very, very seriously,” Mayor Hagerty said. “There are over 800 people or so who work for this City and they all should be entitled to a respectful and professional workplace.”

Due  to the privacy rights afforded to employees under the Illinois  Records Review Act, Mayor Hagerty said, the City could not disclose the specific complaints and findings in the investigate report by the outside law firm.

Aldermen were sharply divided, voting 5-4 against moving forward on the public rebuke, tabling the measure to an undetermined date.

Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, argued against moving forward. “It is my opinion that this censure Resolution serves absolutely no purpose,” she said, calling the censure items “rather nebulous,” and maintaining they “would serve no purpose but to raise questions about what the point of these issues was.”

Ald. Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, though, asked aldermen to put themselves in the place of those allegedly harmed by the conduct in this case. “We’ve all been victims of something. You can relate to how it feels to watch a bunch of people dismiss your legitimate concerns,” he said.

Ald. Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she voted against the motion to table because she thought a censure in this case was necessary.

“On the Council, we have a duty to protect every single person who works for the City of Evanston,” she said. “And the only recourse we have with our peers is censure. I want to let City staff know that I believe them when they come forward and say they’ve been harassed, they’ve been retaliated against, that they feel they don’t work in a safe environment. I believe you.”

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, also expressed concern. “I have a legal obligation to make sure our staff work in a healthy place,” she explained. “If we all look at the news all over the country, for whatever reason, we have violence in the work place. I don’t want that here. I take every complaint seriously,” she said.

But  Mr. Reid as well as citizens during public comment challenged the allegations – with some charging the proposed Resolution was politically motivated because of the Clerk’s previous high-profile activities, including filing a lawsuit earlier this year charging the City was in violation of the Freedom of Information Act by not releasing body-camera footage.

“I can tell you what this looks like from the public’s point of view: This looks like indictment by innuendo,” said Meg Welch, one of some 20 speakers addressing the Council before the vote at the July 15 meeting.

“It’s clear you don’t consider the Clerk a political ally. He’s not a team player when you want him to be. That doesn’t mean that you get to use your office, your powers to damage him politically. And the act of this City initiating a resolution to censure him, effectively politically damages him,” she continued.

“This looks like indictment. Why isn’t this Council censured for the harassment of Devon Reid?” asked Michael Vasilko. “You have harassed him from before he was elected, when he was elected, while he’s been in office, and you’ve taken every opportunity to harass him.”

Another speaker, Lori Keenan, noted that proposed Resolution came as a “Friday surprise,” appearing in the Friday packet before the July 15 meeting, allowing the public little time to mobilize.

“Tonight, as you consider whether to censure Clerk Reid,  a young black man who has brought the Clerk’s office into the new millennium,” she said. “I remind you that many of you sitting on the dais tonight are also guilty of the same charges that Clerk Reid is accused of, and yet none of you  were censured.”

The criticism carried over to the July 22 meeting, where speaker Albert Gibbs criticized the Evanston Police Department’s arrest of Mr. Reid at the Evanston police station on July 19 on a traffic warrant. Mr. Reid had gone to the police station for a meeting unrelated to the traffic citation.

“What it is telling me, more than nothing,” Mr. Gibbs said, “is if you’re a black man in this town and you come to the City Council and you speak truth to power, you better watch your back.”

Speaking on his own behalf at the July meeting, Mr. Reid said, “Have I been perfect in both public and private life? No. None of us have. But I have a steadfast commitment to my role as a public official, and I spend every day working in the interest of the 75,000 residents of our town.”

He said he found it significant that “no information had been released regarding the details of the allegations against me.”

Instead of informing the public of what is going on with this proposed Resolution, “This is an overt and baseless attempt to slander my name and weaken the authority and power of an independent officer accountable to the public,” he said.

In an interview the day after the July 15 meeting, Mr. Reid told the RoundTable that some of the allegations of violations of the Open Meetings Act and harassment arise out of an audio recording of a 13-minute executive session on  April 23, 2018, where the recording accidentally continued after the meeting.

Mr. Reid said he is not sure what caused the record function on his laptop computer to keep running after a 13-minute executive session.

“There was some kind of technological failure or failure on my own part to stop the recording,” he said in an interview.

Because of that, the computer recorded conversations between two aldermen after the meeting, and then continued recording 111 hours of his home life after he brought it home, Mr. Reid said in the interview.

“I know in my heart that I did nothing with malice intent to any City employee,” said Mr. Reid, who offered to answer point-by-point the items in the City’s complaint. “Most of these complaints, especially with the Corporation Counsel, were me advocating in my official capacity for the public’s behalf. I rest easy at night because I know I was doing my job and working on behalf of the folks in Evanston.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.