The City of Evanston will turn to an outside firm to investigate charges brought by more than 50 female lifeguards and beach staff in a petition given to the City in July 2020. The petition asked for City officials to address sexual harassment and other abuses at Evanston’s lakefront.
The City’s response posted on July 19 of this year on its website – the City’s second in a four-day period – said the City would hire an outside firm to investigate the female beach workers’ concerns.
Several Council Members called for a closed-door meeting with City Manager Erika Storlie and staff in response to a WBEZ report on July 16 that described concerns brought by the lifeguards and other beach employees to the City in the July 2020 petition. In that petition, WBEZ reported, the employees alleged their co-workers engaged in rampant sexual misconduct, often against underage girls.
None of the young women was identified by name in the story, which alleged “misconduct” that had occurred over several years. The alleged misconduct included sexual harassment and the rape of a then-18-year-old female lifeguard by an older employee in a managerial role.
On July 16, the City issued a response, which was distributed to the media.
City Council held an executive session on July 17.
In the updated response issued on July 19, posted on the City’s website, cityofevanston.org, but not distributed to the media, City officials detailed a number of steps that had been taken to address the concerns raised by the female lifeguards and beach employees. One step was to “immediately” – that is, in July 2020 – require that all lakefront staff attend sexual harassment training, which specifically reiterated the prohibition of sexual harassment and misconduct among lakefront employees and the consequences of violations.
“It also focused on the prohibition of sexual conduct and behavior involving minor employees and coworkers and reminded staff that off-duty misconduct was also inappropriate and unacceptable,” the City’s statement said.
One male employee was not rehired for the 2021 season after further discussions with lakefront staff, the City statement said.
“The City is confident that these measures have improved the work environment on the lakefront,” the statement continued. “That said, the City is also aware that this is only the beginning. It takes ongoing, sustained work to transform a culture, and every resident, every beach patron, and, especially, every lakefront employee is entitled to full transparency regarding all City actions and processes to date and plans and systems established to ensure safety in the future,” the statement concluded.
Entering the executive session, both Mayor Daniel Biss and Ninth Ward Council Member Cicely Fleming issued statements expressing the need to investigate the situation to understand the City’s response to the concerns brought by the young beach workers.
Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, said on July 19 he fully supported the move for an outside investigation.
In addition to examining the allegations brought by the female beach employees, there “needs to be a look into staff’s handling of the situation, whether mandatory reporting was missed,” he said, “or whether policies need to be updated to make sure this isn’t swept under the rug.”
The move was also in line with a statement issued July 17 by the Community Alliance for Better Government, an activist group, after the WBEZ report became public.
“The Community Alliance for Better Government demands that Evanston’s City Council immediately authorize an independent investigation of the appalling, numerous, and ongoing allegations of sexual abuse in the Parks and Recreation Division, and the silence at best of the City Manager’s office, that allowed this to continue into the summer of 2021,” the group’s statement read in part.
The statement of the group, which has been critical of the City administration in the past, also said “the Mayor and City Council must address the toxic culture, with an admixture of racism, sexism, and favoritism, that has flourished without meaningful challenge at 2100 Ridge [the Civic Center] for years.
“The voices of these young women have been ignored, and CABG stands with them in solidarity.”
In the story, written by WBEZ investigative reporter Dan Mihalopoulos, one of the four women who authored the petition and gathered signatures said some of the beach workers met with City officials in July 2020, presenting them with the petition calling on officials to publicly apologize for failing to address the alleged “blatant sexism, sexual harassment, assault, racism, and discrimination that occurs at the lakefront.”
The woman expressed frustration, according to the WBEZ story, that City officials did not respond to their demands, including one calling for an apology from the City’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services that would include an admission of responsibility for placing underage employees in danger.”
Here is the full text of the City’s updated response to the situation, issued today:
Last July, four seasonal City of Evanston lakefront employees brought serious concerns to the City’s attention regarding the work environment at Evanston beaches and alleged misconduct by lakefront staff. These four employees exhibited remarkable courage and selflessness in coming forward. Our whole community will be safer because of their actions. The City owes them, and the many others who shared concerns through a petition circulated among lakefront staff, a profound debt of gratitude.
In July 2020, City lakefront managers received an email from the four seasonal employees requesting a meeting to discuss concerns regarding the work environment at Evanston’s lakefront. The City’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department and Human Resources Division met with these employees that week and were presented with a petition containing a number of anonymous allegations of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, sexism, racism and discrimination by lakefront staff.
The City of Evanston has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct and is 100 percent committed to fostering a workplace climate and culture where all staff feel and are safe and respected. Anything less than that is unacceptable. The City of Evanston regrets that there were staff who experienced a work environment that did not meet this standard. Accordingly, upon receipt of the petition, the City was deeply concerned and immediately took the following actions:
Lakefront staff were strongly encouraged to contact the City’s Human Resources Division to provide specific accounts of the misconduct described in the petition and to identify individuals involved in this behavior. Staff were also strongly encouraged to contact the Evanston Police Department regarding serious allegations of sexual assault and statutory rape.
All lakefront staff were immediately required to attend a live sexual harassment training, which specifically reiterated the prohibition of sexual harassment and misconduct among lakefront employees and the consequences of violations. It also focused on the prohibition of sexual conduct and behavior involving minor employees and coworkers and reminded staff that off-duty misconduct was also inappropriate and unacceptable.
A trusted Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department employee was identified and designated to serve as a liaison with the City’s Human Resources Division to receive any complaints and concerns from lakefront staff.
A followup meeting was held with the four employees who provided the petition, where a collaborative plan was agreed upon to ensure safety and communication for the remainder of the 2020 season.
In fall of 2020, the Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department reached out to the four employees and invited them to be a part of 2021 season preparations.
In February 2021, the Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department met with the four employees to share remedial and additional training that would be required of lakefront staff for the 2021 season. Also presented were updated policies dealing with the other concerns they had previously raised in 2020, including compensation, COVID-19 safety protocols, and issues with difficult beach patrons.
One male employee was not rehired for the 2021 season after further discussions with lakefront staff.
The City is confident that these measures have improved the work environment on the lakefront. That said, the City is also aware that this is only the beginning. It takes ongoing, sustained work to transform a culture, and every resident, every beach patron, and, especially, every lakefront employee is entitled to full transparency regarding all City actions and processes to date and plans and systems established to ensure safety in the future.Therefore, the City of Evanston will be engaging 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.