Erika Storlie (Photo from City of Evanston website)

Evanston City Council members acted swiftly Aug. 12, authorizing Mayor Daniel Biss to negotiate a separation agreement with City Manager Erika Storlie that will bring her employment to a close just a year shy of her appointment to the City’s top post.

Under the agreement, Storlie’s appointment would end on Oct. 8.

Council members voted 5-4 to approve the Separation Agreement. The split did not appear to be over whether Storlie should leave the City but about the confidentiality provision.

But later in the meeting, Council Member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, called for reconsideration of the vote. She questioned whether a confidentiality provision in the agreement would restrict the information the public would receive from the independent investigation the Council has ordered into sexual misconduct among lakefront staff.

The provision states that the parties agree “that strict confidentiality is mutually beneficial to both parties.”

Under the agreement, Storlie agrees to keep confidential and privileged any information obtained during the course of her employment with the City, including but not limited to any portions of any report of the Independent Investigation (concerning the lakefront) that contain attorney-client privileged or confidential information.

“I would say that sentence should absolutely be removed,” Kelly said. “We keep personnel files confidential, that should be sufficient. Why do we have to go beyond that?”

She brought former Mayor Stephen Hagerty’s name into the conversation, asking how the provision would apply to correspondence between Storlie and Hagerty last year “where they knew about this and there was an exchange of emails,” she said, concerning the lakefront situation.

Hagerty, contacted about Kelly’s comments, responded in an email, “I will provide all information I have on lakefront concerns from the summer of 2020 to the investigators if contacted. I remain concerned that the Evanston City Council just dismissed a highly effective and competent City Manager before any due process investigation of her alleged mismanagement,” he added.

Mayor Biss, addressing Kelly’s concerns without confirming the existence of the email exchange, said his belief is that “anything we would like to release that comes out in the investigation we determine as a body is appropriate for release,” can still be released.

Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, maintained the information would be retrievable. 

“E-mails are one of the more FOIA-able [Freedom Of Information] and released documents. The person who requested the email, received the email, didn’t have to do any ‘Deep Spy’ activity to get it,” he said. “If they had access to it, certainly the full Council would have access to those emails as well.”

“I just want to say that I fully expect the findings of this investigation to be released to the public,” he said. “The way government, of course, works is you need five votes [on a nine-member Council] to make anything, and we have that up here.”

Biss, who was not on the Council last year when the female lifeguards brought their petition to the City, expressed a similar view.

He pointed to the current Council’s action on a matter brought “to the attention of City staff 13 months ago, at least,” as evidence.

“Nothing that has been done tonight that binds our hands,” Biss said. ”We will make the decision regarding what to release. I think there’s a lot of support up here for the kind of transparency that the community is demanding.”

Council members moved right into action on the separation agreement first, then opening up the meeting for public comment – the opposite of usual.

Residents’ comments then ran strong both in favor of the move as well as against, with some speakers suggesting the lakefront situation was being used as a pretense to remove the Manager, whose tenure will be the briefest of the nine City Managers who have led Evanston.

“This law firm that we have hired has only begun its work,” said Mike Davis. “We do not know what evidence has been gathered. We do not know what the law firm will conclude. Let this firm conclude its work. Some people here in this meeting, regrettably, sadly, very sadly, see opportunity in this matter. They seek to take advantage of this sad situation. Erika Storlie must not be scapegoated, she must not be bullied.”

Fleming: Some actions ‘problematic’

Responding to that, Council Member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, stressed that her decision on the issue was a professional one, not personal.

“While I did not vote to hire Erika Storlie, I was very clear that she was who I needed to work with,” she said. “My vote to not approve her contract was not based on a personal relationship. We have a work relationship. It was based on, ‘You hear something and not tell your supervisors’; it was problematic. It was based on what I [came] to learn; maybe it was not quite the investigation it proclaimed to be at the beginning, which is why I supported us hiring an outside attorney to look into it. Because I didn’t feel us looking into inside really made sense.”

“For me, this is not a witch-hunt,” Fleming stressed. “I’m here to make a decision based on what I think is best for our staff, for our citizens, for our youth, for our babies. So it’s not a personal decision.”

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.

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.