Amidst resignations, Evanston government faces scrutiny


Illustration by Sabrina Barnes

The City of Evanston government looks a lot different now than it did three, or even one, month ago. From a change in Evanston Police Department leadership to the City Manager’s resignation, Evanston has undergone many changes that affect all its citizens, including the ETHS student body.

June began with the unexpected retirement of Evanston Police Department chief Demetrius Cook. Cook, who worked for the department for over 30 years, announced his retirement on June 7 following a meeting between him, then-City Manager Erika Storlie and Deputy City Manager Kelley Gandurski.

Following Cook’s resignation, the city remained silent, which frustrated many Evanstonians. No statements were released by the city providing the reason for Cook’s resignation, which caused complaints over the city’s lack of transparency and sparked speculation around the role that city manager Erika Storlie may have played. 

Kevin Brown, an Evanston resident and the fundraising coordinator for the local Evanston NAACP chapter, voiced his concerns about the meeting that preceded the resignation announcement. 

“It is the understanding of the [Evanston NAACP] Board that…they asked him to resign as Police Chief. At this time we are aware of no known cause or justification for the resignation request,” he said in a statement to the Daily Northwestern.

Along with such speculation surrounding Cook’s retirement was the added question of what the change would mean for Evanston’s new Reimagining Public Safety Committee. The committee was created by Mayor Daniel Biss and the City Council on May 26 largely as the product of student activism. The committee has continued to operate as scheduled following Cook’s succession by 24-year veteran of the EPD, Aretha Barnes.

Evanston government experienced another hurdle in late June when the city faced national criticism concerning the cancellation of the Evanston Fourth of July Parade. The criticism came primarily from right-wing political figures and news sources after it was revealed that the city would be holding an in-person Pride parade and a Juneteenth parade, but not a July 4 parade. 

However, the reason for the cancelation was nothing more than logistics, as parade organizers had to make decisions about whether or not to hold their event before vaccines were widely available. When the issue was inflated by right-wing pundits and used to direct wild accusations at Evanston, city leaders managed to be very communicative. Mayor Biss took to Twitter and promptly released an eight-tweet-long thread explaining the situation and rejecting what he described as a “completely fabricated outrage.” And while that event proved the city’s ability to be forthright and communicative, that was not seen when the government would soon come under legitimate scrutiny.

It was the widespread allegations of sexual misconduct by Evanston lakefront staff, brought to light in mid-July, that brought about scrutiny and upheaval for the Evanston City government. The 56-signature-strong petition alleging a culture of harassment by Evanston lakefront employees brought attention to Evanston government officials perceived as having neglected the issue. 

First, Evanston’s top Human Resources official Jennifer Lin was suspended from work by City Manager Erika Storlie for a lack of communication on the topic. Just days later, Erika Storlie was pressured to resign for her inaction in regards to the petition. Many Evanston residents feel these punitive actions are not enough and are representative of a detrimental and persistent lack of transparency by the Evanston government.

Storlie’s resignation agreement, approved in a 5-4 vote by the City Council, included a confidentiality clause in relation to information regarding her 17 years of employment for the city. Despite Mayor Biss defending that agreement in an August City Council meeting saying, “Nothing in the agreement passed tonight should bind us in any way regarding the investigation,” Evanston residents were unimpressed. 

Evanston government’s handling of Storlie’s resignation was perceived as similar to that of Cook’s in lack of transparency and communication. This seemed especially true at the August City Council meeting in which Storlie’s resignation was voted on as public comments from Evanston residents were pushed to the very end of the meeting. 

Evanston resident and ETHS alum Isaac Slevin submitted a public comment for that meeting, describing the government’s lack of transparency as “an embarrassment,” and later said that “[Storlie’s resignation agreement] tells me they’re not serious about making Evanston’s city government an honest, transparent, safe place,” in an interview with the Daily Northwestern

Transparency and direct communication to constituents was what Evanston government failed at most noticeably during the tumultuous processes of handling the two resignations and the Lakefront sexual harassment allegations. As the city now faces new challenges, namely in the newly worsening pandemic, it is clear that Evanstonians wish to see leadership and communication, not confusion and silence, moving forward.