City of Chicago City Hall at 121 N LaSalle St, Monday, May 9, 2022.
A toxic workplace culture can lead to stress, depression and a desire to quit.
When a federal lawsuit is involved and the reprehensible behavior was allegedly carried out by city employees, taxpayers — along with the aggrieved party — can end up being affected, to their detriment.
That’s the case with the $950,000 settlement the City Council’s Finance Committee approved this week to a veteran bricklayer who claimed that he was a target of racist and retaliatory attacks by a superintendent in the Water Management Department.
Chicagoans didn’t have to shoulder the same emotional burden that Dilan Abreu said he endured at the hands of his boorish supervisor Paul Hansen — but they will be shouldering the burden put on their pocketbooks by the settlement.
The proposed settlement should serve as a reminder that initial complaints about problem behaviors should never be dismissed by upper-level managers and elected officials — for the sake of employees and everyone else whose hard-earned money pays the city’s bills.
With enough rigorous oversight, the chances become much lower that another mess, like the mess that once characterized the Water Management Department, will be allowed to fester in other government workplaces.
On Monday, the Finance Committee also approved three settlements involving the Chicago Police Department: a $900,000 settlement with a man who was shot by an officer; $9 million for a man who spent nearly three decades in prison for a murder he was coerced to confess to; and $15 million to the family of a mother who was killed when a police SUV crashed into her as officers pursued another vehicle.
Settlements for police misconduct have taken the biggest chunk out of taxpayers’ wallets: Between 2010 and 2020, the city spent more than half a billion dollars — almost $528 million — to settle misconduct claims, according to a Washington Post analysis.
Time will tell whether court-ordered reforms under the federal consent decree will curb police misconduct complaints. In the meantime, it’s up to city officials to make sure that city workplace misconduct is quickly nipped in the bud.
Deputy Corporation Counsel Susan O’Keefe told Finance Committee members they don’t have to worry about more lawsuits similar to Abreu’s. There is a statute of limitations on such lawsuits, and Hansen, the son of former Ald. Bernard Hansen (44th), resigned in 2017 as part of a shake-up in the Water Management Department after then-Inspector General Joe Ferguson uncovered a trove of racist, sexist and homophobic emails.
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There’s still risk, however. A 2017 federal lawsuit filed by four current and two former Water Management employees — all of them Black — contends the plaintiffs faced “deliberate acts of discrimination during their employment based on their race.”
That case is still pending — which means the matter is not yet water under the bridge. Taxpayers could, yet again, get stuck with the consequences.
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