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PUBLIC TRUST in Evanston, IL: Sexual Harassment Complaints Buried for Years, Weeks, Days

On July 16, 2021, current elected officials and residents first learned of a long-standing complaint by female lakefront staff of sexual harassment by male lakefront staff (including supervisors). From a public trust point of view, there were additional egregious problems:
— Although City staff received a petition signed by 50+ women in July 2020, no one told the sitting alderpeople or the public. It is not clear if the then-mayor (S. Hagerty) knew; he has so far refused comment.
— Worse, when the current mayor (D. Biss) did learn of the allegations in June 2021 (evidently privately, via a parent), City staff took no action for two weeks (evidently until the story was broken by WBEZ on July 16).

The City has hired an independent law firm to investigate what went wrong and to make recommendations. According to news media, the firm is taking comments from anyone who may have an interest or information about this issue and the investigation.

For better or for worse, last Friday (Aug. 6, 2021) we learned that the City and the City Manager have drafted a resignation agreement for the City Manager. This agreement will be discussed at Monday’s City Council meeting (Aug. 9, 2021); if passed, the City Manager (Erika Storlie) will leave her position on Oct. 8, 2021 and no one is going to tell the public anything. From the draft agreement: “The City does not comment on personnel matters and we have no further comment.” 

So, it sounds like everyone’s playing the age-old sexual harassment cover-up game under the age-old “human” resource policy of not discussing “personnel matters”.

For what it’s worth, Evanstonians who are interested in deep structural change and real justice might want to read my 2020 blogs about an international food & farm organization’s internal “personnel” problems and how they were “handled” — i.e., covered up. See the last section of this blog for details.

Here are my contributions to the conversation, as a long-time Evanston resident and a long-time advocate for women’s public authority:
— PUBLIC TIMELINE: Twitter threads, including links to initial news accounts
— MY EMAIL: Formal input to independent investigator: 3 recommendations
— FOOD FIRST: Personal experience (2020) with a large, well-respected food & farm organization’s handling of charges of racism and sexual harassment 

A.  TWITTER THREADS and original news accounts

July 16, 2021 
— Breaking news by WBEZ Dan Mihalopoulos
— EvanstonPatch article by Jonah Meadow

July 17  My first Twitter thread including links to stories and my first reactions 
July 17  City’s official response + my note to my alderman (pre-Saturday night special City Council meeting)
July 23  City staff stonewalled current mayor for two weeks 
Aug. 4  Connecting Evanston’s sexual harassment problems with NY Gov. Cuomo and nationally

Aug. 6  Severance deal for City Manager on Council agenda
— EvanstonNow
— Evanston Patch
— City Council packet and agenda for Aug. 9 meeting

Aug. 9  City Council meeting starts at 6:30 PM
— Item V: Public Comment
— Item VI: Special Order of Business
Resolution 80-R-21 Authorizing the Mayor to execute the separation agreement between City Manager Storlie and the City of Evanston (For action)

B.  EMAIL to Independent Investigators

As my email states, I have no personal knowledge of the incidents or the people involved in these recent sexual harassment complaints. My email contains three recommendations to improve the City’s chain of command and public process. 

There are two sections to this email:
— Above my signature: 3 recommendations
— Below my signature: context for the recommendations

From: Debbie Hillman
Subject: Resident input: Evanston lakefront sexual harassment 
Date: August 2, 2021 

To: Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter
— Andrew Porter
— Kathleen Hill

Ms. Hill, Mr. Porter —
Thanks for taking input from residents regarding the on-going public trust fiasco re sexual harassment among City of Evanston lakefront staff.

I have no specifics or personal knowledge about the incidents of the last few years, but I am a 70-year old woman who
— has lived in a misogynistic culture all of my life 
— has been working on Evanston community issues for all of my time in this city (43+ years)
— has been working on updating our U.S. “democracy” (including City of Evanston government) for the last 16 years

Assuming that you will make some recommendations to the City Council, I would like to alert you to some structural issues that may have exacerbated and/or created the situation. My three recommendations are:

Recommendation #1
Update City Code re interlocking duties and powers of City Council, Mayor, City Clerk, and City Manager through a dedicated public process. 

Recommendation #2
Evanston should find another word for the office of mayor, in conjunction with updating the City Code per #1. 

Recommendation #3
a. All sexual harassment complaints should be labeled high priority requiring IMMEDIATE (24 hours or less ?) notification of ALL City of Evanston elected officials
b. City Clerk should keep an up-to-date log of sexual harassment complaints against city staff or officials

Some background and explanation are provided below.

Thanks for your attention.
— Debbie Hillman
Evanston, IL 60202
4th ward

Recommendations re City of Evanston handling of sexual harassment complaints
by Debbie Hillman
August 2, 2021

The following are three long-term structural cracks in our local governance that may have permitted, encouraged, and/or exacerbated bad decision-making regarding the handling of the petition and complaints by female lakefront staff. I’ve made recommendations for each. 

1. OUTDATED CITY CODE re interlocking duties and powers of:
— City Council
— Mayor
— City Clerk
— City Manager

Of particular note is that the City Code includes ZERO specifics regarding duties and powers of alderpeople. This contrasts with the City Code’s details for Mayor, Clerk, Manager.

I believe that the City Council is currently revising its “Rules” but this is not enough and does not involve much public attention or input.

Recommendation #1
Update City Code re interlocking duties and powers of City Council, Mayor, City Clerk, and City Manager through a dedicated public process. 

2. GENERAL CONFUSION re MUNICIPAL FORMS OF GOVERNMENT: City Manager vs. Strong Mayor
I believe this confusion exists among most U.S. voters, including Evanstonians. It may be particularly problematic in metro areas where the large city (e.g., City of Chicago) has a strong mayor form and the suburbs (e.g., Evanston) have a city manager form. The crux of the confusion is that BOTH forms have a mayor, but with very different roles. 

This confusion seems to extend to elected officials, including Evanston electeds, most of whom 
— are part-time
— don’t really know what they’re getting into when they run in terms of duties, powers, logistics of being an elected official in a “small town” with a population of 75,000 with aspirations of being the conscience of the North Shore

In addition, the media is unintentionally complicit in this confusion.

Recommendation #2
Evanston should find another word for the office of mayor, in conjunction with updating the City Code per #1.

3. WOMEN’S COMPLAINTS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT NOT TAKEN SERIOUSLY by most U.S. officials (governments, institutions, corporations, etc.)
Seeing as this is your area of expertise and seeing that we all have experienced the watershed moment of the #MeToo movement, I suspect this will be part of your report.

I would like to suggest that a possible solution would be for the City of Evanston to adopt a rule making sexual harassment complaints high priority, requiring IMMEDIATE (24 hours or less ?) notification of all City elected officials (including the City Clerk who maybe should be documenting sexual harassment complaints).

This would cover the statement made by a staffperson named Porschia during “citizen comment” approximately two years ago, according to Kevin Brown (a former City of Evanston staff person). Links to Kevin Brown’s Facebook post and video are in this Twitter thread (July 27, 2021).

Recommendation #3
a. All sexual harassment complaints should be labeled high priority requiring IMMEDIATE (24 hours or less ?) notification of ALL City of Evanston elected officials
b. City Clerk should keep an up-to-date log of sexual harassment complaints against city staff or officials

C. FOOD FIRST: #MeToo in the U.S. Food & Farm Movement (2020)
“Most ‘personnel’ matters are not personal”

The second section of my second blog on problems at Food First deals with the issue of not being more public about personnel matters. See Section B — Communications and Information Hoarding: The problem with “personnel” matters — of this blog UPDATE: Food First and the U.S. Food & Farm Movement  (Part 2: August 14, 2020)

Curiously, the Food First brouhaha began as a public accusation of racism by the new Executive Director. In the process of dealing with his resignation, years of sexual harassment by the Interim Executive Director was publicly uncovered. It took the untimely death of the Interim Executive Director (of COVID) in Oct. 2020 to uncover the extent of the harassment and how women and the organization had kept quiet.

I wrote a subsequent blog in December 2020 #MeToo in the U.S. Food & Farm Movement which included a very wise email from a food & farm colleague, Gayle Woodsum of Wyoming, An Open Letter Call to End Sex Offender Tributes. Gayle sent this email to the largest and oldest food & farm listserv (COMFOOD) over which the entire Food First fiasco was being discussed.  Thank goodness it was being discussed.