Editor’s note: The RoundTable rarely uses anonymous sources but in covering the city’s Black Employee Action Group we have honored their request for anonymity as members worry about reprisals and fear for their safety.

The city of Evanston and the city’s Black Employee Action Group seem to have started the new year on the same foot, agreeing to prioritize three actions, which were recommendations in the group’s November report:

  1. Pay Black and white city employees equally.
  2. Implement a standardized staff manager performance review for all departments.
  3. Hire an outside HR firm or consultant to investigate misconduct allegations against the two current city employees named in the action group’s report.

“Our main goal is to make sure that everyone is treated equally,” said one of the action group’s members.

President of the Community Alliance for Better Government Lesley Williams reads a statement from the City of Evanston Black Employees Action Group at a meeting on Nov. 14. Credit: Gina Castro

In the coming weeks, the action group will start listening sessions with consultant Gilo Kwesi Logan, who was hired as a facilitator. In addition, any Black city employee and the rest of the city’s 800-plus employees will be able to participate in subsequent sessions. All employees will have the option to participate while on city time.

The city is in the process of interviewing outside consultants to investigate misconduct claims against the two current city employees named in the group’s report.

“We will have a full review of Dave [Stoneback] and Megan [Fulara] and HR and Public Works leadership and so forth,” City Manager Luke Stowe said, referencing the two people named in the report. “And we’ll go from there, and based on the findings of that review then there’ll be accountability as appropriate.”

The RoundTable interviewed four of the anonymous group’s members and Stowe together via Zoom on Jan. 25. Having both groups present in the interview added a layer of transparency to the discussion.

When the RoundTable met with the action group and Stowe separately in December, the two groups had conflicting stories regarding the city’s 60-day roadmap. But this time around, the two seem to be on the same page.

Stowe, along with the Second Ward City Council Member Krissie Harris, have met with a separate organization, called the Core Implementation Group (CIG), from 4 to 5 p.m. on a biweekly basis since Dec. 13.

The CIG is made up of Black city employees who meet with the city and relay information back to the action group’s estimated 65 members. Their thoughts don’t represent the entire action group, they said.

“A lot of the things that we are suggesting better the entire organization in general, so I think this is a marathon, not a sprint,” said an anonymous group member.

“I think that this is probably the furthest that this employee group has ever gotten with being heard,” added another action group member.

Equal pay

After the winter holiday break, Harris and Stowe “met multiple times and spent several hours” reviewing the action group’s report and action plan to tie direct responses to each of the recommendations, Stowe said. They presented a new report recommendation draft to the group during the Jan. 19 meeting. The group identified its top three priorities from that draft.

Black city employees report racism in the workplace

“There’s 20 recommendations, right, I would love to do all 20 tomorrow, but at some point, it is helpful to hear from the group what they feel their highest priorities are, so we can put extra time and energy on those,” Stowe said.

These top three priorities are new territories for the city.

The closest the city has gotten to investigating internal pay disparities by race was a compensation and classification study in 2022, which was conducted by the firm Baker Tilly.

The study reviewed internal city job titles and job descriptions and identified pay grades and salary ranges. Comparing these details by race “was not part of the scope,” Stowe said.

Race-related pay disparities, though not reported by the city, exist in the city, the action group said.

“It’s really hard to put a number to it,” said one action group member, noting that Black employees’ stories about this issue are worth looking into.

Another member of CIG said they were glad the city adopted a pay philosophy after the Baker Tilly report was released, but thinks the city has more work to do.

“It needs to be a little bit more specific on how things are done because it’s seems to be very discretionary,” the CIG member said.

Manager performance review

The city’s current process for reviewing managers isn’t holistic and doesn’t empower employees to provide feedback on their supervisors. But Stowe said he fully supports improving the current system to conduct a 360-degree review of managers.

“What we don’t want is we don’t want employees at the city who are really good at keeping their immediate supervisor happy, but then don’t work well with anybody else, right?” Stowe said.

“That’s not helpful for the organization. So we do want to have the ability for employees to weigh in on their supervisors or other colleagues like, for example, a director, we want other directors to be able to share feedback on that director and how the police chief is interfacing with the fire chief with the public works director, right? That’s really important too. Rather than just the relationship between the police chief and the city manager, for example. So I fully support that.”

The city plans to conduct an optional employee satisfaction survey and share the results publicly. The survey will ask about 40 questions and “there will be relevant themes or questions” regarding the action group’s report, Stowe said.

When the city did an employee survey in 2019, cumulative results were not shared. The former HR manager shared only positive statements about the survey for an Administration & Public Works Committee meeting, one CIG member recalled.

“I believe that when the results were delivered by the former HR manager, it was ‘Oh, everybody’s happy. They have no issues with management,'” one member said. “And it’s all untrue.”

But Stowe promised this time things will be different. He intends on sharing a “high level summary” with the public and employees.

“I would commit to as best we can implementing and acting on what we receive [from the survey],” Stowe said.

Investigating misconduct

One of the individuals named in the report works closely with Stowe as his deputy city manager. But Stowe said he intends on finding a consultant to investigate all of the action group’s misconduct claims.

“I don’t want to just randomly select a firm,” Stowe said. “I want it to be a firm that this group has confidence in.”

When the RoundTable interviewed the action group for the first time in December, they reported that one of the members was drug tested and seven cameras were added to the city-owned vehicle the employee drives.

The group described these incidents as acts of retaliation since they occurred shortly after the group’s report was released.

The city investigated this incidents and discussed them with the group, Stowe said.

The RoundTable followed up on the progress of this investigation via email on Jan. 31.

“After an initial review and discussion with the employee group, there appears to be no retaliation against these employees,” Stowe wrote in a Feb. 2 email. “However, we are continuing to review it thoroughly and will provide more information on these policies to all city staff and the public in the coming days. We are also keeping consistent open communication with the employee group to ensure we are hearing concerns and addressing issues.”

To confirm that the action group agreed that these instances weren’t retaliation, the RoundTable reached out to the action group via email on Feb. 2.

“After CM Luke [Stowe’s] explanation, the group agrees that the latest test was not retaliatory, but that the test happened at the wrong time,” the group wrote in an email Feb. 6. “There are folks that do believe they have been victimized by the process though.”

Additional members of the action group were drug tested in December 2022, the group said. The group discussed the issue with the city.

“Although it appears the latest test was not correlated with participation in the group, we are continuing to pay attention as concerning actions have occurred in the past,” the group said.

As for the seven cameras added to some vehicles in the Public Works Department, the group said, “There are some in the Public Works Department who have said they were told that these Instruments were installed for their safety but has been used since its inception as a Tool For Disciplinary Actions.”

The city has received four emails to its complaints@cityofevanston.org email, which go to only Stowe and corporation counsel.

Stowe said the first two emails were resolved to the satisfaction of employees involved but wouldn’t provide details. The two most recent emails weren’t related to the action group and have been resolved, Stowe said.

One hope from the CIG members is that the upcoming listening sessions with consultant Logan will empower other employees to describe their experience working for the city.

“The only thing that I would hope is that people that were afraid to come forward before feel comfortable and feel safe enough to share and and to communicate with with Dr. Logan,” one member added.

Even though Stowe has made it clear that all employees, especially those involved in the action group, are safe to come forward, people are still scared to do so, the same employee added.

“There’s a lot of people that are terrified, absolutely terrified, depending on their department,” they said.

Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....

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