Evanston’s top city staffer will leave after less than a year on the job amid an ongoing investigation into allegations of widespread sexual misconduct among lifeguards and beach workers on the city’s lakefront.
City Council members in the northern suburb voted Thursday night to approve a separation agreement with City Manager Erika Storlie, who was just appointed last fall. The 5 to 4 vote means Storlie’s last day will be Oct. 8, ending a 16-year career working in various roles for the city of Evanston.
Before voting, aldermen tweaked the language of the agreement to mollify residents and critics who decried a confidentiality clause in the original document. That would have allowed city officials to keep secret any report generated by an outside investigation into the city’s handling of sexual harassment and abuse allegations brought by dozens of young women last year.
“Nothing that we’ve done, that’s been done tonight, binds our hands,” Mayor Daniel Biss said at a special City Council meeting Thursday. “We will make the decision regarding what to release. I think that there’s a lot of support up here for the kind of transparency that the community’s demanding.”
Storlie’s impending departure follows a WBEZ investigation in July that revealed 56 female lifeguards and other beach workers sent a petition to city officials last summer complaining of widespread sexual harassment and assault.
Many of the complaints alleged misconduct against underage girls. One woman told WBEZ she was raped by an older employee in a managerial role at a party for Evanston beach workers several years ago, when she was 18. No one has been charged.
In their petition, the young women called on Evanston officials to apologize publicly for failing to address “the blatant sexism, sexual harassment, assault, racism, and discrimination that occurs at the lakefront.” Organizers of the petition said they met several times with city staff, but were ultimately frustrated by what they saw as an inadequate official response.
The city initially defended its handling of the complaints, saying staffers had acted appropriately.
But following the publication of WBEZ’s July 16 investigation, some Evanston elected officials expressed frustration and anger, saying they were never told about the situation.
The following week, Storlie told elected officials she had decided to put Evanston’s human resources head, Jennifer Lin, on paid administrative leave as rancor grew about the city’s handling of the original complaints. In a memo obtained by WBEZ, Storlie wrote that the female employees’ petition “was not shared with me or anyone else in the City Manager’s Office or the Law Department.” The city also hired an outside law firm to investigate the beach workers’ allegations.
Aldermen and the mayor met Monday to consider Storlie’s separation agreement, but ended up delaying the vote until Thursday night due to controversy surrounding the secrecy clause. The original document barred the city from releasing the full report from the independent probe to the public.
That clause was changed in the version that got final approval Thursday. But some aldermen nonetheless raised concerns that the legal language still won’t allow for enough transparency relating to the scandal that’s shaken this progressive college town in recent weeks.
“I’m hoping that, you know, this doesn’t preclude us from a full-throated apology at the conclusion of this investigation, and doesn’t preclude us from releasing as much information as we need to ensure that this does not happen again,” said Ald. Devon Reid, 8th Ward.
Storlie’s departure will cost the taxpayers of Evanston dearly. Under the separation agreement, she stands to get a lump sum equal to 20 weeks’ pay.
This year, Evanston officials had budgeted more than $250,000 to pay Storlie, plus another $40,000 for city-paid benefits, including health insurance, life insurance and pension contributions.
Alex Keefe is an editor on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @akeefe.