The top city official in Evanston has agreed to quit her high-paying post, just weeks after a WBEZ investigation revealed widespread allegations of sexual harassment and violence from more than 50 young women who have worked as lifeguards or in other jobs at the northern suburb’s public beaches.
City Manager Erika Storlie is set to leave her job in October, after just nine months – but has agreed to continue to cooperate with a new, external investigation into the beach workers’ explosive allegations, according to city records. A separation agreement unveiled Friday could get final City Council on Monday.
When asked by WBEZ about the alleged abuse of beach workers a few weeks ago, city officials staunchly defended their response, initially saying they had acted appropriately after being handed a petition signed by 56 current and former employees in July 2020.
But immediately after the WBEZ story appeared, the Evanston City Council held a closed-door, special session to deal with the matter, and the city hired a law firm to conduct what they promise will be a thorough and independent investigation.
According to the separation agreement with Storlie, she has agreed to “reasonably cooperate with the City’s independent investigation into the allegations of misconduct among lakefront staff.” And the city promises to give Storlie a chance “to review the resulting full Report upon completion and release to the City.”
That’s more than the public will get to see, the city’s top lawyer said.
According to the agreement with Storlie, “The Report and its contents are confidential and privileged and shall not be disclosed by the City unless required by law.”
Evanston’s corporation counsel, Nicholas Cummings, confirmed to WBEZ Friday that city officials have no plans to release the complete findings of the taxpayer-funded investigation.
“The City intends to make public the result of the investigation,” Cummings said in an email. “However, the full report, which will contain privileged material, is not expected to be made public.”
Cummings said city officials could make no further comment “due to the ongoing investigation.”
The city has hired the law firm of Salvatore, Prescott, Porter & Porter to conduct the investigation. The firm’s partners include Julie Porter, a former Illinois legislative inspector general who also was a federal prosecutor for some of the most high-profile corruption cases in Chicago in recent years.
In a statement, the firm said its investigation will “follow the evidence wherever it leads” and that the lawyers would work “as expeditiously as possible.”
City officials have not said how much they are paying for the outside probe but promised the firm would “conduct a thorough, impartial investigation of every aspect of the situation.”
Storlie’s departure could 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.
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.”
The women said the apology from the city of Evanston’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services “must include an admission of responsibility for placing underage employees in danger.
“Apologize directly to survivors, their families and all lakefront employees for consistently placing underaged employees in oppressive, uncomfortable and dangerous situations and in close proximity with sexual predators,” they wrote.
In the most egregious case, a young female lifeguard 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.
Organizers of the petition met several times with city officials, but they said they became frustrated with their reaction.
And some elected officials said they were angry that city officials did not tell them about the issue and that they only learned of it from the WBEZ story.
Storlie and the city’s top human resources official, Jennifer Lin, attended the City Council’s hours-long special session on July 17, the day after the WBEZ investigation was published. But Storlie and Lin left the meeting long before it concluded.
The following week, Storlie told elected officials she had decided to put Lin on paid administrative leave because of the situation with the beach workers. 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 separation agreement with Storlie appears designed to make it as hard as possible for the public to know exactly what she knew about the allegations and when she learned of them. The agreement states that “strict confidentiality is mutually beneficial to both parties,” and both Storlie and city officials agree not to disparage one another.
The city would be contractually bound to say nothing more about the matter than a statement spelled out in the agreement: “Erika Storlie served the City of Evanston for over sixteen (16) years, most recently as its City Manager, and dedicated significant effort to her duties over that time. Her service is appreciated. Ms. Storlie has advised the City that she seeks to pursue other opportunities, and both she and the City of Evanston have mutually agreed that she will leave her employment with the City to pursue those opportunities. We wish her success in her future endeavors. The City does not comment on personnel matters and we have no further comment.”
Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss, who was elected earlier this year, declined to comment on Storlie’s departure. He has said he believes the city’s response to the “horrifying allegations” revealed by WBEZ had amounted to “a serious institutional failure.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @dmihalopoulos.