EDITORIAL: Move swiftly to clean up the toxic Water Department mess

SHARE EDITORIAL: Move swiftly to clean up the toxic Water Department mess

Inspector General Joseph Ferguson | File photo by Max Herman for the Sun-Times

It seems there’s no limit to the toxic mix of racism, sexism and just plain vulgar behavior in the city’s Department of Water Management.


In his final report on a scandal that’s been unfolding for almost two years, the city’s Inspector General this week revealed yet more instances of coarseness and bigotry by department workers who apparently felt they had carte blanche to act like boorish, hateful clowns stuck in a racist time warp.

We already knew about the emails showing a Ku Klux Klan scarecrow in a watermelon patch, relaying homophobic “jokes” and advertising a “Chicago Safari” through the predominantly black Englewood neighborhood. Now we learn about the messages referring to “taco benders,” “Hebrews” and “Texas cotton farmers bidding on Obama” in a mock slave auction.

One worker thought it was OK to grab a security guard by the hips and make “thrusting gestures.” And then there was the high-level employee in another department who felt emboldened to, among other things, “display” his genitals to a security guard.

Unfortunately for the water department workers who endured this disgusting behavior for years, it took an investigation sparked by an unrelated allegation to uncover the full extent of this harassment and hate. And unfortunately, for those of us who want to live in a civilized world, the bigots and harassers didn’t learn a lesson when that investigation got underway: It’s a new day, and sexism and prejudice can’t be brushed aside anymore.

But the good news is this: It is a new day. Ignorance and hate will be revealed eventually, whether in the emails you send, the statements your victims give — or in video taken by one of your customers in a coffee shop.

Employees shouldn’t have to tolerate a work environment that makes them sick to their stomach or fearful of retaliation for reporting harassment. Chicagoans shouldn’t have their tax dollars go toward the salaries of city workers who can’t see fit to follow guidelines for professional behavior.

City Hall has vowed to clean up the department and appears to be taking steps to do so. Good.

The harassed workers, and the rest of us living in the current century, deserve a swift cleanup of this toxic mess.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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