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A report released by the city on Friday morning detailed rampant sexual harassment among seasonal lakefront staff. (RoundTable photo) Credit: photo submitted

A scathing report from a law firm hired by the City of Evanston to investigate a toxic culture of sexual misconduct and harassment in the lifeguard program recommends a complete overhaul of the way the city runs the lakefront, and also urges officials to consider discipline of those responsible for the failures.

The investigation began after WBEZ Chicago reported last year on a petition from dozens of female employees of Evanston’s lakefront who said their co-workers engaged in pervasive, wide-ranging sexual misconduct that included unwelcome sexual comments, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

In December, a RoundTable investigation revealed why the city’s female lifeguards grew so frustrated with the official response to their allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. In one email, a city official told complaining lifeguards that action on their demands would have to wait because “the priority right now is getting the City’s budget passed for 2021.” And a key city official wrote to another in the summer of 2020 that it was “doubtful that anyone at the City will agree to apologize and admit that it knew this stuff was going on.”

The law firm’s report, released publicly by the city, is 379 pages long and goes into painstaking and often shocking detail about the allegations against lifeguard supervisors and city officials.

The report said the “lakefront had a culture susceptible to abuses of power,” adding that it had “limited oversight” from the city and relied on mostly young male supervisors who were given too much discretion and power over their largely young female employees. Additionally, the report said there was almost no training from the city’s Human Resources department on any issue, including how to prevent, report or handle sexual harassment.

The report said that these “blurred boundaries” led to wild “guard parties” in which “lifeguards of all ranks and ages consumed alcohol and drugs together.”

The report said that supervisors gave better lifeguarding assignments and benefits to women to whom they were sexually attracted, meting out physical punishment for perceived offenses and frequently made sexual advances that subordinates felt pressured to accept.

The report also said one of the male supervisors “had sexual relationships with multiple female lifeguards who he supervised, and the women did not consent to at least some of the sexual interactions they had with him.”

Among the list of officials the report said were involved in some way with failing to properly investigate and hold accountable those at fault were several high-ranking City of Evanston employees. The report was particularly critical of the actions of Jennifer Lin, former Human Resources Division Manager for the city.

“We attribute the incorrect decision not to conduct an investigation primarily to Lin,” the report concluded.

Lin, along with several other city officials named in the report, no longer is employed by the City of Evanston.

The report also noted that some of the blame for the city’s bungled handling of the petition from female lakefront staff lies with Lawrence Hemingway, the former Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services for Evanston. Hemingway was the subject of a 2018 sexual harassment complaint filed by one of his own employees, which led him to “recuse” himself from handling the lifeguard petition, according to the law firm’s investigation.

“Hemingway does not escape responsibility for the City’s insufficient response just
because he ‘recused’ himself—as the Director of PRCS he maintained the obligation to recognize the severity of the circumstance and ensure that appropriate action was taken,” the report said.

At the end of the report, the law firm hired by the city also specifically recommended considering disciplinary action against Hemingway. However, he resigned from his position on Monday, Feb. 21, according to a city spokesperson. The city did not enter a separation agreement with Hemingway, and “he will receive any compensation that he is owed,” the spokesperson told the RoundTable.

“As an organization, the City of Evanston takes responsibility for this situation and is committed to implementing the changes necessary to ensure that nothing like this occurs in the future,” a Friday morning press release from the city said.

When asked for his reaction to the report, Mayor Daniel Biss said, “First of all the findings themselves are horrifying and make clear that we have a tremendous amount of work to do.”

“It’s also painful to read not only about the unimaginable conduct that occurred but also how the brave women who came forward were treated by city officials, given that they took considerable risk to themselves to speak out,” Biss continued.

“I hope we can learn in particular from that. When we say we believe women, that comes with a set of responsibilities with how we conduct ourselves, how we react to allegations. I hope we have learned that lesson fully and broadly, beyond workers at the lakefront and throughout the city.”

According to the law firm’s report, the city’s only actions in hearing about the petition by dozens of employees and the serious allegations within was to institute sexual harassment training, prohibit physical discipline and create an HR liaison for the lakefront.

The report will affect recruitment of a new City Manager and Parks and Recreation Director, Biss said. “We will be asking ourselves and the candidates what in their experience prepares them to do the repair and building that is required here? We’re going to make sure the candidates are coming in eyes wide open.”

The report pointed out that the city did not consider or undertake any kind of investigation into the petition’s allegations and did not discipline or terminate anyone named in the petition, other than by declining to rehire a male supervisor who had previous complaints against him.

It was not until WBEZ published the story that the city took any further action, the report said.

The recommendations from the law firm are wide-ranging and include that the city should:

  • Increase supervision of the lakefront.
  • Overhaul the system for hiring and training lifeguards that has historically favored male lifeguards.
  • Standardize lifeguard beach assignments.
  • Build clear Human Resources policies and consistently administered training for seasonal lakefront staff, with ongoing Human Resources involvement in the lakefront operation.
  • Establish a clear application, hiring and training process
  • Formally prohibit the use of physical training as discipline or punishment
  • Revise Human Resources investigation practices and ensure that investigations are handled by trained investigators with adequate capacity.
  • Adopt stronger and more formal systems for documenting and tracking employee complaints.
  • Consider disciplinary action against certain personnel.

Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, also told the RoundTable in an interview Friday afternoon that he hopes the city will broadly apply the recommendations of the report to improve every aspect of management, leadership and staff protocols across city departments.

“Although this independent study was focused on the lakefront, the conclusions that it draws and the recommendations for improvement moving forward need to be applied throughout the city,” Nieuwsma said. “I am not alone among the Council members in wanting to make sure it’s not just the folks on the lakefront that we are looking out for, but all of the youth in the city involved in youth programs as employees or as participants.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. first eths nothing done til a student takes action next a reporter forces action 0n the lake you who just stood by and let it happen have no shame

  2. I appreciate all the preceding comments, but the problems/scandals in this city go further back. Former City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, initially failed to solve this, allowing escalation to where we’re at now. He also was responsible for the $millions wasted on both the James Park issue & the Crown Center/Library cost overruns. He, along with Grant Farrar, our corporation counsel, were allowed to escape unscathed as those fleeing this sinking ship now have done. They all should have been FIRED!
    Evanston is an unworthy recipient of recent awards. The agencies dispensing them haven’t done their homework, as all they’ve seen is the veneer AND not the rot underneath. Our behavior has been despicable.

  3. Nothing in the recommendations about hiring women guard supervisors. Shame on both Chicago Park District and the City of Evanston for minimizing women employees’ legitimate complaints that impact the safety of every beach going patron.

  4. I am grateful that this investigation validates the complaints and concerns of so many young people who have suffered greatly due to the actions, and negligence, on the part of our City employees. Shame on us! The lack of both accountability and consequences is indeed stunning and horrible. There is SO much work to be done here.

  5. My heart goes out to the victims and their needless suffering because of horrible leadership among City administrators who were discriminatory and biased in their actions. These HR findings go far beyond the lakefront and any City staff that suffered discipline or termination under Jennifer Lin should seek competent legal counsel. There is still much work to be done to provide a safe and discrimination free work environment. The Report documents that even after finding out about the petition and the allegations, current interim City Manager Kelly Gandurski allowed Karen Hawk and Lawrence Hemingway to remain employed. The Council should also look into potential legal action against the former City Manager Erika Storlie for paying HR Director Jennifer Lin $50,000 after she resigned. Systems are broken at the City and not only are people harmed hundreds of thousands of tax payer dollars have been pilfered away. I am praying for authentic accountability.

  6. Shame on the City of Evanston government for the it’s lack of accountability and consequences for top level staff and officials who were in place at the time of this scandal- No severance packages, or paid leave should have been awarded unless the investigation ascertained that there was no negligence on the part of staff for what was going on.

    However, the city gave severance packages, separation agreements, and employees were allowed to resign without discipline or consequence.

    Ex-City Manager, Erika Storlie, was given a separation package, HR Senior staff Jennifer Linn was given paid leave benefits and $50,000, Assistant director of Parks and rec, Karen Hawk, was never disciplined or held accountable although she was one of the employee who the lifeguards submitted their petition to. And where were Evanston Chief Legal counsel and then Mayor Hagerty during all of this? Were their heads in the sand? Did city manager Storlie, or HR Lin, parks and rec director Hemmingway or Asst. Parks and Rec. Director Hawk, not discuss any of the events or seek legal direction from our current interim city manger Gandurski who was Chief Counsel for Evanston during the time of the sexual misconduct or notify Mayor Hagerty?

    There are many questions which still need to be addressed. Evanston needs a structure for transparency and accountability starting at the top. I don’t know if we will ever get the truth of this painful situation, but we need to do our best to ensure the breakdown does not happen again. The minimum of what should have happened when the Lifeguards told the assistant director of Parks and rec what was going on is that she should have notified the city manager who is responsible for running the city, and the manager would have consulted with the mayor and the legal counsel and city council and an investigation began, counseling offered and sexual harassment training implemented This serious and damaging misconduct was swept under the carpet until the carpet was lifted by WBEZ and the lifeguards. Is this breakdown of responsible government an isolated incident or the tip of an iceberg?

  7. I have always been proud to live in Evanston until reading this. This is absolutely horrible and I am so happy the law firm did such a deep investigation. We have a city have very important work to do on gender equity.

  8. Excellent reporting and keeping this investigation in the forefront. Our city will be better for it. Thank you

  9. Wow, this is just stunning. No wonder the City’s Parks Director just resigned. He must have seen this barreling right into his job. Mayor Biss has a big mess on his hands, not of his own making, but it’s ugly nonetheless. How did the City not do better here? I’m seriously disgusted by this crap, which reads like something that could have (and probably did) happen when I was a teen in the 1970’s. How little we have learned—and how little we have taught our young men! Despicable behavior, guys. Grow TF up.