From Mayor Daniel Biss’ email newsletter:
The City of Evanston recently released a report detailing the outcome of the investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct among lakefront employees – and into allegations that the City mishandled this issue when it was raised by survivors. The investigation was conducted over more than half a year by the law firm Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter (SPPP).
After taking some time to read and reflect on the report, I wanted to share my reactions to this awful situation.
First of all, the report is very impressive. It’s thorough, carefully researched, and clearly written. I’m extremely grateful to SPPP for their excellent work. I urge you to read the report yourself – certainly information about it will travel through word of mouth, but I don’t think that a game of telephone does a service either to the seriousness of the topic or to the survivors themselves.
Next, the report is just profoundly troubling. Its findings essentially come in two parts: descriptions of misconduct that occurred among lakefront employees, and descriptions of how the City did and did not react to reports of that misconduct. The first part, while horrifying, was not mostly surprising to those who were aware of the allegations presented to City staff in 2020, or those who’d followed media coverage of this issue.
The second part, though, brings into focus another part of the story which was not as familiar. It describes an institution that, over the course of years, had no idea how to handle serious accusations of pervasive sexual misconduct. Sometimes that system performed half-hearted “investigations” that led to slaps on the wrist (if that). Sometimes it placed enormous burdens on survivors, essentially shifting the City’s responsibility onto them. Sometimes it hid behind survivors and blamed them for the City’s failures to keep its own employees safe.
Taken together, these examples paint a picture of a system that was set up to side with perpetrators of heinous misconduct. I’m not suggesting that individual City staff were sympathetic to the perpetrators. My point, rather, is that in order for survivors to be taken seriously and the appropriate action to be taken, innumerable stars had to align and hurdles had to be cleared. But both common sense and experience indicate that this was very unlikely to happen – in other words, the practical reality of the system was that it enabled perpetrators and dismissed survivors.
In determining our next steps, I think one guiding principle is critical. We have to understand the problem as being about the institution, not just individuals. This is true for a couple reasons: first of all, there are many dedicated employees at the City – including in our Parks and Recreation Department – who are profoundly horrified about what’s gone wrong and just as committed to fixing it.
Second, with so many of the individuals who are named in the report no longer working for the City, there will likely be a temptation to declare victory, move on, and sweep the remaining challenges under the rug. To do so would be a practical and moral error, because the systemic reforms we need won’t happen automatically just because of a few personnel changes.
The SPPP report ends with nine recommendations (you can find them beginning on page 64), and I’m pleased that City Council and our staff leadership are united in our commitment to implement all of them. Some have already been underway for months, and others are beginning now; some will be completed quickly, and others will take significant time and resources to effectuate.
These steps will set the stage for the system change we need but they will not by themselves guarantee that transformation. I am committed to doing all I can to ensure that we give this topic the attention and focus it will take to build a culture where everyone – staff, residents, and visitors – is welcome and safe.
Finally, I want to thank the courageous women who stepped forward several times, always at risk to themselves, to try to fix this situation. The shameful way they were treated is a painful and crystalline illustration of why survivors are so often hesitant to speak out. While we cannot undo the harm that was done to them, we can, by taking the right steps, achieve the goal that led them to speak out in the first place, which is to fix this problem for current and future generations of City workers.
That is our moral responsibility, and that is my promise to our community.
Mayor, City of Evanston