By Bob Seidenberg
Kevin Brown, the city’s popular Community Services Manager whose termination on November 15, 2019, sparked a wide community protest, filed a complaint in federal court on Sept. 13 against the City of Evanston. The complaint alleges that he was terminated on the basis of race and that he was terminated in retaliation for having months before called out a white supervisor for racial discrimination.
In the complaint, Brown, whose Youth and Young Adult program received praise for its work with at-risk youth and families, offered a narrative for his termination that was different from the one circulated at the time.
In documents made available at the time, city officials maintained that Brown was fired for failing “to get his outreach workers to stop using parking spots a the city’s short-term parking lot at the Civic Center and for using his city credit card to pay parking tickets issued to the outreach workers.
In the complaint, Brown traces his falling out with the city to an interaction with Melissa Parker, a city employee who is white.
In March 2019, the complaint alleges, Brown attended a city meeting with Parker, and during that meeting, Brown raised the issue of Parker’s “white privilege” with her in response to a change she had made in a city policy.
The complaint alleges that Brown believed the policy change had a disproportionately negative impact on the young people of color involved in his program.
Parker could not be reached for comment through a call to city offices on Thursday, Sept. 15. Another employee reported that Parker had recently left the city and said she would take the reporter’s information and see if Parker could be contacted.
As a result of Brown’s white privilege’ comment, Parker filed a Healthy Work Environment claim against Brown, and Brown also filed a complaint against her, the complaint alleges.
The complaint also alleges that, as a result of the investigation conducted by Jennifer Lin, the Human Resources Division Manager at the time, Brown was punished more harshly than Parker for the interaction.
On March 22, 2019, and March 23, 2019, Brown sent emails to several senior city employees, including Lin, raising issues of structural racism in the application of Evanston’s Healthy Work Environment policies, the complaint alleges.
The complaint further alleges that both Lin and the Healthy Work Environment policy were harshly criticized by a more recent report investigating sexual abuse in the Evanston lifeguard program.
Lin had previously clashed with Brown over legislation proposed by former Evanston City Councilmember Cicely Fleming, the complaint alleges. Fleming wanted to change the policy regarding hiring people who had past criminal records, a change that was intended to allow Evanston to hire more people of color and which Lin opposed, the complaint alleges.
Lin reached a settlement agreement with the city after initiation of an outside investigation into her role in acting on complaints of sexual abuse in the Evanston lifeguard program. Contacted today via email, Lin said she did not know anything about Brown’s lawsuit and had nothing to add.
The complaint also alleges that Brown observed Lin, Parker and Karen Hawk, his direct supervisor, socializing together. None of these employees is Black.
In late October of 2019, the city said it was suspending Brown for violating the city’s Purchasing Card policy by using a city credit card to pay for the parking tickets incurred by outreach workers for parking in the city’s lot. Evanston created a policy that city workers were not allowed to park in the 2-hour parking spots and would be ticketed if they did so, the complaint alleges.
The complaint also alleges that alleges that during Brown’s employment, employees under supervision often parked in the 2-hour spaces in the city hall parking lot because they would come and go to the office frequently between seeing clients in the neighborhoods.
“It was the job of these outreach workers to see clients in [the] community,” Brown alleges in his complaint, “but they needed to come back to the office briefly to do paperwork or enter information into their computer so they would park in spots that were convenient for their job responsibilities.”
Evanston’s purchasing card policy allowed Brown “to make payments in the normal course of business and did not prohibit using the credit card to pay for parking tickets issued in the course of doing business,” the complaint alleges.
The complaint also alleges that city supervisors signed off on parking ticket payments. It alleges that Brown’s supervisors, Karen Hawk and Lawrence Hemingway, the city’s director of Parks and Recreation and Community Services at the time, specifically instructed him to pay for these parking tickets using his city credit card to be reimbursed by the city. “At their instruction, he did this multiple times between July 11, 2018 and September, 17, 2019,” the complaint alleges. It also alleges that Hawk reviewed and approved Brown’s monthly credit card reconciliations which included charges for the parking tickets.
The complaint also alleges that Brown disputes Hawk’s statement to the State Department of Human Rights that she did not open the information on the tickets. The DHR conducted an investigation into the allegations that comprise Brown’s federal complaint.
Hawk resigned from Evanston in October 2021 in the midst of an investigation into her department’s handling of sexual harassment complaints by female lifeguards, the complaint alleges.
Now Director of Parks and Recreation for the village of Lincolnwood, Hawk did not respond to a phone message Sept. 15 seeking comment.
The complaint alleges that on Nov. 15, 2019, Brown was advised by then Interim City Manager Erika Storlie that his employment with the City was terminated. This followed pre-disciplinary hearing where it was charged that Brown ignored instructions from superiors, the complaint alleges.
Following the decision, community members packed three Council meetings, urging then-Mayor Stephen Hagerty and the Council to overturn Brown’s termination.
At one of the meetings, former Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl spoke of the work of Brown’s group, defusing violence. “Kevin has done a remarkable job,” Tisdahl was quoted at the time. “One of the things that I did as mayor, I believe, was to encourage Kevin and to support him, and I’m here ask you to do the same.”
An editorial published in the Nov. 17, 2019 RoundTable observed that “the outreach team members work with youth who have suffered trauma from such things as poverty, lack of care for physical and mental problems, stress and homelessness. The team members become mentors and, at times, mediators and violence-interrupters in order to keep the community safe and entice the youth from life on the street.
With community partners such as the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, the Mayor’s Employment Advisory Council and the Youth Job Center, these Evanston youth receive help for their basic needs as well as support to rejoin the mainstream of attending school and becoming prepared to hold a job.”
Council members, however, took no action to overturn officials decision. Hagerty said he could not disclose any details of Brown’s termination, maintaining it was a personnel matter governed by personnel policies and applicable laws.
‘Hung out to dry’
The lawsuit seeks damages for racial discrimination and retaliation in multiple counts, including compensation for lost wages and other compensation, such as retirement benefits.
After working as a city attorney in St. Louis, Brown had embarked on career in education and public policy when he was hired as the city’s first manager for the Youth and Young Adult program.
From the time he was hired in 2012 to his termination, the city saw an approximate 219% percent decline in the number of people between 16 and 24 years old arrested by police, the complaint alleges.
The youth program he ran during that time expanded from 163 participants in 2012 to eventually over 600 youth people, mostly young people of color, the complaint alleges.
‘Hung out to dry’
Brown, currently senior director for external affairs at the Safer Foundation, a non-profit group that works to reduce recidivism in Illinois, maintained in a phone interview that officials used the parking tickets as an excuse for his termination, “but really they were unhappy with me talking about racial discrimination in the work place.”
He said the parking tickets went through at least three layers of approval – Hawk, Hemingway, as well as the then Council which ultimately approves city bills.
“If anyone in that group was concerned about the transactions they could have called for an investigation into the approval process,” he said.
“Instead of owning up to it and saying, ‘Hey, he’s not being treated fairly,’ everyone sort of went along with it,” Brown said, “and sort of hung me out to dry.”
Brown also said he reached out to new City Manager Luke Stowe following Stowe’s recent appointment.
“I told him he had gotten the right to sue letter and I mentioned I was willing to come back to the city,” he disclosed. “But he didn’t give me any indication he wanted me back.”
The city provided the following statement: “In January 2021, the Illinois Department of Human Rights dismissed charges filed by Mr. Brown against the City, finding no substantial evidence of discrimination. As a policy, the City does not comment on pending litigation, and will not be commenting on the lawsuit filed by Mr. Brown this week.
“During his first month as city manager, City Manager Stowe
proactively reached out to many members of the Evanston community, including
Mr. Brown, to discuss a wide variety of issues and challenges facing the City.
The purpose of these meetings was to listen, support collaboration, and build