The members of the Evanston City Council have signed a letter of apology to the young female lifeguards and beach staff who maintained the City failed to act on allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct they brought in a petition to officials in July 2020.

The City has engaged an outside firm to conduct an independent investigation of the charges.

Mayor Daniel Biss read into the record at the Oct. 4 City Council meeting a letter of apology from the Council to victims of lakefront sexual harassment. (RoundTable photo)

Mayor Daniel Biss, who wasn’t on the Council at the time the lifeguards presented their petition, read a copy of the letter into the record at Monday’s City Council meeting.

Representatives of Evanston’s faith community had taken a lead on the issue last month. In an open letter, the clergy members said that while many of the responses to the situation might unfold over the course of an investigation, one action that should be taken now is an apology by the City.

“Such an apology is the first step in a long process of repair, and without it, moral and spiritual progress are impossible,” the clergy members said.

Council members echoed that sentiment in the letter the mayor read into the record at the start of the Oct. 4 meeting.

“Dear current and former City of Evanston staff, parents and caregivers, and Evanston residents,” the letter begins.

“Thank you to all the brave community members and employees who stepped forward to share your experiences with sexual harassment while employed by the City of Evanston. We believe your statements and we are committed to preventing the sexism, sexual harassment, assault, racism, and discrimination you experienced.

“We apologize for the workplace culture that allowed sexual harassment to occur, and we’re sorry that you had to experience oppressive, uncomfortable, and dangerous behavior.

“We apologize to your families, friends and the community of Evanston, both for the harms City staff and policies allowed to happen and for our delay in issuing this apology.

“When you showed the courage to come forward, you were not treated with a prompt compassion and respect you deserved. As these incidents have come to our attention, residents understandably have lost some faith in the ability of their government officials to handle delicate and serious situations. We take responsibility for the situation, and will do everything in our power to right these wrongs.

“Moving forward we must do better. We have begun by implementing mandatory sexual harassment training for seasonal staff, and we’ll expand this to include participants and employees in the mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program. We have also commissioned an independent investigation, which will help determine what actions and inactions led to this harm so we can take additional corrective measures.

“We will share the outcome of this investigation, while protecting the identities of those who have experienced harm. We are grateful to the organizations offering specialized resources for anyone who experienced harm and encourage any current or former employees in need of support to reach out to the contacts below. It is our goal that the entire City of Evanston should be a welcoming environment for everyone, employees and residents alike. The City has fallen short of our expectations, and we are grateful for the courage of those of you who persisted in seeking accountability and transparency. Thank you for speaking up.

“The City of Evanston government must, beyond everything else, keep our community safe, and we are committed to doing just that,” Biss concluded, saying the the statement had been signed by all nine members of the City Council as well as himself.

Following his reading, the mayor thanked the Council members for their robust engagement in the drafting of the statement, particularly Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, in shepherding the statement “through the opinions of 10 very opinionated people.” He also paid special credit to Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, who, he said, initially spurred the Council to take action.

“And I want to be very, very, very clear that this letter is not an end by any means of our commitment nor of our intended action. The investigation, which is ongoing, is serious and professional. We anticipate that we will learn a great deal from the outcome of that investigation and we will follow that information wherever it takes us, because the stakes of this question could not be higher,” Biss said.

“Thanks, finally, and especially, as the letter indicates, to the community members who, notwithstanding the harm that was done to them had the courage to come forward – and to the many other community members who played a part pushing us to take these actions: Your efforts mean an enormously great deal not only to the survivors and to those of us up here, but to everyone who lives in the community of Evanston. Thank you very much.”

A WBEZ investigative unit aired a story 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 female employees alleged their co-workers engaged in rampant sexual misconduct, often against underage girls. 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.

The women expressed frustration, according to the WBEZ report, that City officials didn’t respond to their demands, including one calling for an apology from the City’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services to include “an admission of responsibility for placing underage employees in danger.”

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.