Chicago Alderman wants hearings to address racism at the Chicago Water Department

Alderman demands hearings on racist culture at city water department

Fran Spielman

A South Side alderman on Wednesday demanded City Council hearings into the racist culture that, he claims, continues to permeate Chicago’s Department of Water Management — even under an African-American commissioner.

To underscore the point, Ald. David Moore (17th) displayed a photo taken in April of a Water Management truck with a noose hanging above the steering wheel.

According to Moore, the unidentified perpetrator of the offense apologized to co-workers who might have been offended by it and got off with a reprimand.

“It sends a racist message of hanging people,” Moore said, adding that “a firing should have taken place.”

Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner is the African-American charged with cleaning house in the department at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals.

Conner said the noose photo was taken two months before he took over and the incident was “dealt with the same day.”

“They approached the gentleman where the string was hanging in the truck…. He was very remorseful. He apologized for the insensitivity of it. And he removed it. That was it,” Conner said Wednesday.

“It was a slip-knot that he used for his own personal writing instrument. That’s how it was explained to senior management.”
Conner was asked whether he “buys” that explanation.

“It’s not about what I buy. It’s about what the senior managers felt was appropriate,” the commissioner said.

“It wasn’t about me trying to undo or go back in time. When I got there, I hit the re-set button on everything that was going on in the Department of Water Management. And since then, there hasn’t been another incident.”

Given the progress made and the sensitivity training held, Conner said he sees no need for City Council hearings.

“It didn’t happen overnight and it’s not going to be fixed overnight. But, we’ve made significant strides,” Conner said.

“I reject the fact that this is the same place that it always was. In the four months that I’ve been there, we’ve let people know there is a zero-tolerance for these types of things.”

Moore strongly disagreed. He argued that City Council hearings will encourage the testimony of Water Management employees and shield them from future retaliation.

Michael Outley, a retired assistant chief operating engineer in the Department of Water Management, attended a City Hall news conference Wednesday.

Moore was joined at the City Hall news conference by a handful of retired Water Management employees who confirmed the alderman’s claims about the racist culture.

Former assistant chief operating engineer Michael Outley said he retired in July after being the victim of what he called “stalking, intimidation and violence in the workplace” that made his job untenable.

“It’s like this thing with [Harvey Weinstein] in Hollywood. They can’t go to anybody because of political retaliation and fear,” Outley said.

In June, a housecleaning triggered by racist, sexist and homophobic emails swept out Water Management Commissioner Barrett Murphy, managing deputy William Bresnahan and district superintendent Paul Hansen.

Four current and two former Water Management employees — all African-Americans — have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the department of “a hostile and abusive work environment” based on race that includes violence, intimidation and retaliation.

That includes less-desirable shifts and work assignments and being denied promotions, transfers, overtime and training opportunities. Black women were routinely referred to as “bitches and whores,” the suit contends.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson subsequently issued a quarterly report that included explosive new details about the emails scandal.

The report included allegations that the son of a former Chicago alderman used his city email account to buy or sell firearms and cars and send hate-filled emails describing African-Americans as “wild animals.”

Ferguson uncovered the racist, sexist and homophobic emails circulating in the Department of Water Management while investigating allegations that now former District Superintendent Paul Hansen had used his city email account to sell guns, as the Chicago Sun-Times was first to report.

Hansen is the son of former longtime Ald. Bernard Hansen (44th). The son’s checkered past with the water department includes allegations that political clout helped him get his job back after a DUI conviction.

Hansen was accused of sending an email with the subject line “Chicago Safari Tickets” to multiple high-ranking Water Management colleagues.

“If you didn’t book a Chicago Safari adventure with us this 4th of July weekend, this is what you missed,” the email states, listing the number of people shot in Englewood, Garfield Park, Austin, Lawndale, South Shore, Woodlawn and other neighborhood plagued by gang violence. It concludes: “We guarantee that you will see at least one kill and five crime scenes per three-day tour. You’ll also see lots and lots of animals in their natural habitat.”

Hansen was further accused of using his city email account to negotiate personal purchases or sales of at least four firearms and five cars and used a city computer to access websites unrelated to city business on thousands of occasions over a four-month period, including accessing sexually explicit videos on YouTube. Paul Hansen’s DUI Video is also on Youtube.