In a strongly worded email to the members of City Council on Jan. 20, City Manager Luke Stowe listed multiple complaints from city employees about treatment by Council members.

Evanston City Manager Luke Stowe. Credit: Richard Cahan

He invited each of them to meet individually with Mayor Daniel Biss and himself “to discuss these concerns and how the council and staff can work together more productively and collaboratively for the benefit of everyone.”

Unemployment rates are at a 53-year low, the email said, and “we risk continuing to lose some of our best staff members unless there is a substantial and meaningful course correction.”

The RoundTable obtained Stowe’s email and Council members’ responses on Feb. 15 through an FOI request and subsequently contacted Stowe and Biss to see if either wished to make further comment.

The complaints

Among the concerns Stowe listed while explaining how Council members’ actions have contributed to an “unhealthy work environment” were the following:

  • “Contacting different staff members to “shop” for a different answer if they did not receive the answer they initially sought. This approach is time-consuming and creates internal confusion, and sows distrust.
  • “Using language in emails or other communications that would be considered unhealthy or hostile if sent by their manager or other city colleagues. 
  • “Not respecting the council-manager form of government that Evanston has maintained since 1952. Councilmembers often direct staff, including staff below the Director level. This is inappropriate given our form of government, creates confusion, and makes most staff uncomfortable and unclear about how to proceed. Perhaps most of all, it’s not appropriate for one Councilmember to commit staff time, resources, and funding which could be contradictory to the majority will of the rest of the City Council.
  • “Some female staffers have shared that some Council members do not respect their opinion or position due to their gender.
  • “Many staff believes the City Council typically does not ‘have their back’ regarding difficult or unpopular decisions in the community.
  • “Staff occasionally receive abusive communications from the public that the city council is aware of but rarely defends or intervenes on behalf of staff.
  • “Arriving late (or not at all) to staff and/or city council meetings. There is often no communication when they will be late or miss the meeting. It is disrespectful to staff, outside attendees, members of the public, and fellow Council members.
  • “At times, some Council members do not correctly portray the accurate results of meetings, interactions with staff, and other proceedings when communicating publicly, including at the dais during council meetings.
  • “Requesting data or information that will take several hours of staff time and expecting near-instant turnaround time despite the existing workload.
  • “Confusing ‘bad news’ that a staff member delivers as the fault of the staff person -even if that person had little or no control over the issue.
  • “[Inability] to manage disagreements with staff in a professional manner. Keeping grudges against staff for prior disputes over policy or professional opinions.
  • “Public criticism of staff is often misleading, inaccurate, or leaves out full context.
  • “Coaching members of the public to criticize staff during public meetings.
  • “Sharing confidential and/or sensitive information with people not entitled to the information. We’ve witnessed statements during public comment, in public, or online that should only be discussed in executive sessions.
  • “Violating a ‘no-surprise’ rule at City Council meetings. Certain Councilmembers have blindsided the staff. Staff always tries to keep the City Council informed so they are not surprised, especially on Monday nights. Staff asks for the same from Councilmembers.
  • “Demonstrating favoritism of particular residents and/or businesses over others.”

Noting that not all of the complaints applied to all Council members, Stowe wrote, nonetheless, “Such actions put staff in difficult or impossible situations because Councilmembers are not employees and are therefore not subject to the City’s HR policies. … 

“We all recognize the city has challenges and lots of room for improvement, but we rarely, if ever, celebrate the successes.

“Staff needs the freedom to offer their professional opinion without fear of retaliation, bullying, or impact on their career.”

Several Council members, including Biss responded quickly to Stowe’s email:

  • Biss thanked Stowe for the email and noted, “His message tracks with what I’ve been hearing from staff as well. … One other concern I consistently hear from staff, as well as former staff and potential future employees (not to mention community members) is related to the chaotic nature of our Council meetings.”
  • Sixth Ward Council Member Thomas Suffredin wrote, “Thanks. Set up my appointment as soon as possible.” He told the RoundTable in a subsequent interview: “Let’s do better. Everyone – council members and city staff – needs to get it together and do their jobs and remember the end-users are the taxpayers and the residents.”
  • Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, wrote, “To truly have a productive discussion, I think it would be good for Council members to develop a list of concerns we have regarding staff. I’ll work with my colleagues on that list and get back to you as soon as possible. I think this will be a worthwhile exercise for all involved. Thank you for organizing this!”
  • Third Ward Council member Melissa Wynne, the senior member of the Council, responded, “Thank you for the email. I’m happy to talk about these issues.”
  • Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, sent two emails, one calling for an executive session: “We need to put names to this behavior, the body collectively is responsible for holding its members individually accountable for inappropriate behavior (including among one another). Further, it may be helpful to set clear expectations for Staff interactions with council-members.” In a subsequent email he wrote, “To be clear, I do not believe myself to be absolved of the issues listed in the bullet points. The point of requesting the executive meeting is to avoid siloed discussions and to ensure clear expectations are set for both Council and Staff.”

On Feb. 22, the Mayor said his response to Stowe’s email (quoted above) speaks for itself.

Stowe wrote: “One of the critical responsibilities of the City Manager is to ensure a healthy work environment for our employees. I will continue working with the City Council to accomplish that goal so that we can achieve our community’s goals together.” 

Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings
Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings at Feb. 13 City Council meeting Credit: Bob Seidenberg

The RoundTable asked Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings whether an executive session to discuss the behavior of Council members, such as Reid proposed, would be appropriate. The Illinois Open Meetings Act allows an exception to discuss personnel, but Council members are not “employees” of the city.

He responded, “Based on your description, it would seem the members of Council could convene to determine if any disciplinary action can or should be taken against any member.  That exception would be 5 ILCS 120/2(c)(3). However, absent more facts, I cannot say for certain if any exception applies.”

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  1. It is quite likely, knowing that all human contacts can lead to misunderstanding and hard feelings, that the complaints of city employees with regard to their experience with council members have merit. However, as someone has had lengthy, frustrating and fruitless discussions over the years with two heads of city departments regarding problems within their sphere of responsibility, I think it is fair to characterize the ethos of these employees is to do the minimum regardless of the intervention of elected officials who would have them do more. So, in the interests of fairness, a survey of the satisfaction of elected members when they make specific requests for mandated services on behalf of constituents from the heads of city departments might balance the equation and lead to more productive discussions about how the city might move forward.

  2. Anytime I’ve written to the council, alders in the 1st, 7th and 8th Wards have been responsive and respectful. I appreciate this and also those who show up regularly to council meetings!

  3. Respecting he was selected for this difficult position: Did Mr Stowe make attempts to first personally work on staff complaints with department managers and beforehand communicate directly with Mayor / Council prior to producing a letter he knew very well would be made public? ‘IF’ the position City Manager includes being end supervisor of City department managers / staff while a liaison with Mayor and Council does this manner of publicly tossing the ball at someone else’s court indicate other issues- perhaps we shall see. Let’s remember that whichever unnamed member
    on Council is being chastised by ‘staff’, was voted in by residents of that ward.

  4. Well, this is interesting. What a change of heart. No one on Council seemed concerned when the 8th ward Alderperson at the time, Ann Rainey, said F*** you to me (a citizen) in a public meeting and was then allowed to vote at a rules committee meeting against her own censure. And props to Mike Vasilko’s comments about the way the public is treated at public comment. Personally I’d love to see more action and accountability by staff to the council and the citizens. The citizens are at the top of the org chart. Council members are supposed to represent our interests. City staff and the City Manager serve Council. The inefficiency and incompetence I’ve witnessed is sometimes staggering. Maybe this council member is just asking for competency and/or efficiency, and maybe we should, too.

  5. Wow, a manager who advocates for staff, how refreshing! Mr. Stowe has uncovered some intstitutional bedrock regarding privilege. Good luck to him; people hate when that happens.

  6. Can we get more specifics about some of the issues listed? I’m specifically interested in what are these “unpopular decisions” the staff has to make and specifics of about “public criticism of staff”. It’s a little vague to simply list “staff” as well. There’s so much information missing it’s hard get any sense of what these complaints mean. This could be a helpful window into the mechanics of our local political system and the more transparency the better.

  7. I am certain that Luke Stowe’s intentions are honorable. I like Luke, and he is after all the shepherd of a group of people with a wide range of abilities and personalities. Some are thin skinned and always looking to avoid interaction with the public (who pay their salaries).

    More concerning is the big picture of how residents (tax payers) are treated by city officials (elected and appointed), and how “decorum” is quickly boxing in freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Citizens who take the time and make the effort to provide comments at city meetings are policed regarding what they say, how they say it, what words they can and cannot use, what decibel level they can speak at, and must judge the inflection of their voices so as not to be declared unruly and be thrown out of the council chamber.

    There is nothing wrong with candid conversation whether from residents or council members or from staff. We need strong, fair, and transparent leadership not baby sitters.

  8. Chances are there is much more behind Stowe’s email thanes complaints against City Council members. Though I don’t know if the alleged complaints are warranted, I do know that the former 8th Ward Council Member, Ann Rainey, routinely made requests directly to staff employees without the City Manager’s knowledge or involvement. That was her mode of operation. That is how she got things done. There were many members of the staff intimidated by the power and influence she wielded to refuse her requests. I don’t recall the City Manager, Mayor, Council members, local media or concerned residents complaining that Rainey’s behavior was inappropriate given our form of government. So, what is this really about?

  9. Staff at the City of Evanston are some of the highest paid in America. Unfortunately, the level of accountability for many of the senior staff who are complaining have not matched their high salaries. Mayor Daniel Biss did you sign off on this letter? I think the community needs to know. If you did sign off, you are providing the foundation for a lawsuit against the City of Evanston should you choose to terminate the current City Manager. There is a tremendous void of leadership in the City’s administration and on its City Council. It is harming the residents of Evanston.

    1. Why does one’s salary excuse all of the deplorable behavior identified the city manager? It does not. The fact that this kind of behavior is occurring among elected officials, and other leaders, provides much insight into how City of Evanston found itself badly mishandling the reports of young, female lifeguards’ complaints of abuse and harassment by supervisors. If top officials behave like this, we should not be surprised that the behaviors replicate themselves throughout the ranks and then we actually do end up with litigation.

  10. Curious. It causes me to wonder if this is the result of ineffective leadership at the top. Do you have a plan in place for “problems with certain council members”, and addressing those? Or is putting it in the RT the way you effect change? By the way, how’s the racial equity plan going? Would love to see an article addressing the measures in place for the Black employees and the culture at the City of Evanston.

  11. Mr. Stowe must feel the climate for city staff is untenable for him to take the risk of writing this letter to the body that can terminate him. Don’t we all wish we had a boss that would stand up for us? Good for him.
    I hope there is a follow up to actions taken to improve the relationship between city council and staff, along with assurances no one faces retaliation for coming forward.

  12. I applaud City Manager Stowe for having the insight and courage to bring up these issues directly. It is a part of his job but a part that can be over looked because of the conflicts it can bring into the open.

  13. Wow! Reading the complaints… I am shocked! I thought Evanston was more of a civilized town with respect to these mechanisms! Meaning—I thought that all complains and communications to the city staff would go through the manager. Isn’t it why we have a manager? Imagine if we went to a bank, had a problem with cashing a check and started screaming at the cashier! I am aware of how bureaucracy can impair the functioning of city organisms and sometimes it can be completely maddening. But this story is either too exaggerated or it tells of an uncontrolled council!!! Don’t we have protocols that we must follow?

  14. Agree with Jeffrey Storer! Nice job, Mr. Stowe! I am NOT surprised that women feel disrespected, however, since I am one. But I am surprised at the long laundry list of inappropriate behaviors from council members. Are they not apprised of their responsibilities when they join the council? It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious. I have great faith that together, Mayor Biss, Mr. Stowe, and those council members who are serious and dedicated will address this untenable, ridiculous situation immediately. Here’s my message to council members: For heavens sake, be respectful! Is that so hard? (*runs screaming from room while ripping hair from head….*)

  15. So far it looks like they made the right choice in hiring Mr. Stowe. I was surprised to see that some female employees feel disrespected because of their gender. I think that subject needs more attention and discussion. In a town like Evanston, this should not even be an issue and those council members should be called out.

    1. I think a lot of problems in these areas continue because Evanston sees itself as “a town like Evanston”…i.e. different from the others, having a different set of values, and principles. I’m no less surprised by the allegations of different treatment related to gender than I was of different treatment related to race by Black employees. The most surprised and disappointed people seem to be the ones that think Evanston is less sexist and less racist than other communities. Who decided that?

    2. This is a difficult story to read about internal workings between staff and alderpersons in Evanston. Thanks to City Manager Stowe for putting it out front in support of his staff. Wishing him luck in getting it straightened out in such a tense situation and with understanding about everyone’s role in this.