Evanston Mayor Stephen Hagerty has turned to an outside agency to conduct an investigation into how sensitive materials from a July 8 executive session got released into the public, charging the action could seriously undermine the public’s trust in City government.

In a newsletter dated Aug. 2, Mayor Hagerty said he “did not make this decision lightly” and was “very disappointed that I had to make such an unpleasant and embarrassing request.”

Mayor Hagerty wrote to the Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart’s Department July 26, citing “extraordinary circumstances” in support of his request that  the agency  conduct an official misconduct investigation in Evanston.

A spokesperson for the Department on July 30 confirmed receiving the letter this week and said the Mayor’s request is under consideration.

In his letter, Mayor Hagerty pointed to the release without authorization of a packet of confidential materials that was provided to aldermen at a July 8 closed-door executive session.

The materials included an outside law firm’s findings on healthy-workplace-environment complaints against City Clerk  Devon Reid, including alleged unprofessional communications and allleged harassment of a few employees and violations of the Open Meetings Act.

 Mr. Reid has maintained that some of the Open Meetings allegations arose from an audio recording of a 13-minute executive session in April 2019, where the recording function on his computer accidentally continued after the meeting. He maintained most of the other complaints, especially with the City’ Corporation Counsel, were through his advocating in his official capacity for the public’s behalf.

 On July 15, the Evanston City Council held a public meeting to discuss the mayor’s recommendation that the Clerk be censored for violating the City’s Healthy  Work Policy, Mayor Hagerty noted in his letter. Aldermen voted 5-4 to table the matter, he recounted.

“Later that evening, around 11 p.m., the City became aware that somebody had released without authorization the executive session packet,” Mr. Hagerty said. He noted in his letter to the Sheriff’s Department that the City’s first indication came in a Freedom of Information request by Misty Witenberg, whom he identified as a local blogger. (The documents in the Executive Session were not subject to a FOIA disclosure, Mr. Hagerty further noted.).

By the next day, the entire July 8 executive session package went public without authorization, Mr. Hagerty said in  this letter to the Sheriff’s Department, including “the names of the employees who filed the complaint, the confidential letter I provided to Clerk Reid, and the attorney’s draft letter to the State’s Attorney  expressing our concern that the Clerk has violated the State’s eavesdropping  ordinance.”

Mr. Hagerty said in his letter that the only individuals who had access to the information package were the City’s nine aldermen, himself,  the City Manager, seven members of City staff and Robbins Schwartz, an outside law firm the City had retained to investigate the allegations against Mr. Reid, Mr. Hagerty said. (As the subject of the executive session, Mr. Reid was not in attendance at the meeting, the Mayor pointed out.)

“The release  of the July 8 privileged and confidential executive session package, containing detailed information on the employee complaints and eavesdropping allegations and attorney-client privileged communications, is an extraordinary act of misconduct,” the Mayor charged in his letter to Sheriff Dart’s office. “I have reason to believe that the packet was released by an individual alderman acting without the authorization of the City Council. If so, such action qualifies as official misconduct under the Illinois Official Misconduct Act.

“We have conducted a review of our IT systems and found no sign of improper access,” he continued. “Instead, based on our preliminary review, we believe that the highly confidential material was released by one of  the individuals who had access to it,” he said.

The Mayor further noted that an arrest of Mr. Reid by Evanston Police July 17 on an unrelated traffic matter figured strongly in his decision that it was more appropriate that outside agency conduct the investigation about the releasing of the confidential materials.  He  expressed hope that the Sheriff  Department’s investigation would “determine  who specifically broke the law, and, two, demonstrate  to our residents that we and the County take seriously Official Misconduct as it undermines the public’s trust in government.”

Contacted by the RoundTable after the letter became public July 30, Mayor Hagerty stressed that his request to the Sheriff’s Department did not come lightly. But he charged the release of the sensitive materials in this case constituted a “diminution of trust.

“When I say ‘diminution of trust,’” he explained, “it’s ‘How can this City Council function without the trust of one another?’” Council members, in their  closed discussions allowed under Illinois law, deal with some of the most sensitive issues “in front of the City, including personnel, contract negotiations and lawsuits,” he noted.

The Mayor’s action came as surprise to some aldermen. At the regular Eighth Ward community meeting at the Levy Center July 30, Alderman Ann Rainey, responding to a question from an audience member, said that the Mayor, “unbeknownst to all aldermen and high-level City staff, had all their emails scrubbed by the City’s IT (Internet Technology) Department to find out who done it.

 “I think the time has passed long enough now that I didn’t do it,” she said.
“I’ll bet it’s the first time in the history of the United States that any mayor of any city has done this,” offered Ald.  Rainey.

Alderman Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, said he was also surprised. “I think the leak of materials should absolutely be investigated, but we should have our IT  or police department investigate,” he said July 31. “We look incredibly foolish running to the Sheriff’s’ Department for something like this.”

But several aldermen contacted said the action was necessary, citing the effect the release of sensitive materials could have on individuals lives.

“We ask the citizens to put their trust in us,” said Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward  “But  we have to earn that trust – that’s part of the process. If whoever had access to this information and shared it, they breached the trust of the people who trusted in them.”

Alderman Peter  Braithwaite  2nd Ward said it was embarrassing for the City to be in this position. “But I think when you start to share sensitive [information], particularly personnel, the impact that has on the lives of employees is  really shameful in some ways.”

And it can be costly too, he said, noting that one lawsuit against the City included damages because of information spread over social media, he said.
“It’s unfortunate.”

Misty Witenberg, whose name was mentioned in the Mayor’s letter to the Sheriff’s office, said her group, Evanston Leads, a blog that advocates for local government transparency and accountability, weighed the decision whether to make public the materials they obtained.

In this instance, “We felt the case was so misrepresented by the Council that he [Devon Reid] hadn’t been able to provide a defense, and it was in the public’s interest to have an accurate representation of the charges they [City officials] had effectively already made public,” she argued.

During public testimony at the July 22 City Council meeting, Ms. Witenberg told Council members “that I think you all know that I firmly believe the City should hold City staff accountable if they violate laws or break our Council rules.”

However, in this case, the Mayor’s resolution was “charging someone with legal violations and attempting to impose penalties” without even affording that officer a hearing, she argued.

Bob Seidenberg

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.