City Manager Erika Storlie and Mayor Daniel Biss (RoundTable photo)

Evanston City Council Members held off Aug. 9 approving a separation agreement between City Manager Erika Storlie and the City, with some speakers demanding that no confidentiality be granted to Storlie in the investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by lakefront staff.

After a nearly two-hour executive session, Mayor Daniel Biss said with “critical questions at stake,” Council Members had decided to table until Thursday, Aug. 12, action on the separation agreement.

He said it was “very clear” prior to going into the executive session “both from the discussion we heard at public comment and the conversations that each of us had with our constituents, and frankly from the back channel discussions we’ve had, that more time was needed.

“The stakes are tremendous for the trust between our City government and community,” he said.

Between the Aug. 9 and 12 meetings, he said, officials would work “as diligently as possible on an agreement to achieve critical goals of transparency, of fairness.”

Council Members voted unanimously to hold the special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 12 at the Morton Civic Center. The meeting will also be broadcast live on the City’s Channel 16. 

The Council’s decision to postpone consideration of the separation agreement came after a tense public comment session, at which speakers weighed in on the separation agreement. 

Council Members had reportedly begun moving in the direction of parting ways with Storlie after a nearly four-hour executive session on July 17 with the City Manager and then City Human Resources Division Manager Jennifer Lin.

Council Members called for the July 17 executive session the day after a WBEZ report that 56 female lifeguards had brought a petition to City officials last year alleging sexual misconduct on the part of male co-workers and supervisors.

The employees’ petition included a request for an apology from City staff for putting the young employees in harm’s way, as well as demands for changes – to which, they maintained, the City largely did not respond.

At Monday’s meeting, former Mayor Stephen Hagerty was among a handful of speakers weighing in against Storlie’s termination. 

In a written statement,  Hagerty, one of Storlie’s most ardent backers during her elevation from interim status to the top City post, noted the role she and her team played, “most notably our successful response to the pandemic; our state- of-the-art, nationally recognized Robert Crown Community Center; a $2 [million] surplus in 2020, the year of the pandemic, due to her quick actions to cut expenses in the second quarter last year; her efforts to quickly work with community partners to provide basic essential services to those most in need.

“She’s everything you’d want in a City Manager,” he maintained. 

“What disturbs me the most,” he said in his statement, “Is that the Council is making this decision before it has even begun a formal outside independent investigation of the alleged mismanagement of the lakefront allegations. This leads me to believe this is nothing but a convenient opportunity for some Council members to dismiss and damage her under a cloud of unfounded mismanagement.” 

Pete Giangreco, another speaker, whose Friends of the Robert Crown Community Center fundraising group worked closely with Storlie during the construction of the new community center, noted the irony of her removal – coming after the City received an “All-American City” award, the ceremony for which was held earlier in the Council meeting.

Paradoxically, he noted, “the Council’s reaction is to get rid of her. You should be ashamed of yourself,” he told Council members. “Erika has served this City for 16 years. She ran the City as a smart manager, a problem-solver who had no political agenda.

“So the question is, ‘Who’s next?’” he said.  “We’re down a police chief. We’re going to lose the City Manager. We have City Council members who bully staff, who treat them terribly,” he charged.

A greater number of speakers, though, urged Council members to move in a different direction.

Sebastian Nalls, a member of the Community Alliance for Better Government (CABG) and a candidate for mayor in the City’s primary election in Februarysaid the group is in favor of an open process “in pursuit of a City Manager who is committed to dismantling policies, programs and practices that embedded favoritism based on race, class and neighborhood.”

As drafted, the current separation calls for Storlie “to reasonably cooperate with the City’s independent investigation into the allegations of misconduct among lakefront staff.” 

CABG has raised concern about a statement from the City’s Corporation Counsel in one report that, while the City intends to make public the results of the outside investigation, the full report, because it will contain privileged material, is not expected to be made public.

The group in its statement last week said that this position is “disrespectful and derogatory to those who were survivors of the alleged misconduct, their families, and the larger community. Residents must know which systems failed so they may advocate for appropriate measures to protect the youth and young adults of Evanston who work on its beaches and throughout the City. A refusal to disclose this information will lead to further mistrust and a shortage of seasonal workers in the future.”

At the Aug. 9 meeting, Nalls said, “The first step of such a process is the removal of the confidentiality clause of City Manager Storlie’s separation agreement. …The independent investigation report into sexual misconduct allegations should be made available to the public and full with redactions of personal information pertaining to survivors of the alleged misconduct. Any pre-commitment of confidentiality before results have arrived will only further mistrust,” he maintained.

Isaac Slevin, another speaker, struck a personal note in asking Council Members to consider carefully how they structure the separation agreement.

“So last year, 56 lifeguards, including my neighbors, my friends, delivered a mandate to the City and to Council,” he said. 

“They said, and I quote, ‘Apologize to rescue survivors, their families and all lakefront employees for consistently placing under-aged employees in oppressive, uncomfortable and close proximity with sexual predators.’

“That is the mandate that the City has had to respond to,” he told Council Members.

“But instead, we’ve seen an agreement, a separation agreement that leaves us, the City, with no possibility to explain why City Manager Storlie is leaving and with no ability to later explain the role that she had in the [situation]. So I implore you, what kind of City do you want to build? Do you want to respect survivors? Do you want to hold City [officials] to account? Do you want to take this opportunity to turn over a new leaf? Or do you want to engage in the same situations that left you in this mess?”

The entire meeting is available on the City’s YouTube channel.

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.