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‘Take a water hose and clean out’ Department of Water Management, mayor is urged

Former employees contend discrimination persists two years after a white commissioner was replaced by an African American in response to racist, sexist and homophobic emails.

Katherine Ealy, former chief operating engineer at the Sawyer Water Filtration plant.
Katherine Ealy, former chief operating engineer at the Sawyer Water Filtration plant, wipes away tears during a news conference Thursday at her attorney’s office.
Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was urged Thursday to “take a water hose and clean out” Chicago’s Department of Water Management where, former employees contend, discrimination persists two years after a white commissioner was replaced by an African American.

Katherine Ealy was promoted to chief operating engineer at the Eugene Sawyer Water Purification Plant shortly after a 2017 housecleaning triggered by racist, sexist and homophobic emails; gone were Water Management Commissioner Barrett Murphy and his top deputies and supervisors.

Veteran City Hall insider Randy Conner, an African American, replaced Murphy and was given carte blanche to clean house. He chose Ealy, a black lesbian and a Navy veteran of Operation Desert Storm — and a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit triggered by the department’s hate-filled culture.

Before her promotion, Ealy claimed, she had been called a “f---—- whore” and a “black b——” by a co-worker; her written complaints were ignored. So, she said, she was “hoping and praying” a “new day” had dawned at the scandal-scarred department.

She was wrong.

“I learned pretty quickly that things were not going to change — even after they appointed a black commissioner, Randy Conner,” Ealy, fighting back tears, said Thursday at a news conference at her attorney’s office.

“As the only black female and openly gay official, I was constantly micromanaged. I was disrespected by co-workers both below and above me, even deputy commissioner and former Ald. John Pope. I was even told that the only reason I was promoted was because I was black and a woman.”

Ealy said she was “forced” to resign from her “dream job” on July 19. She refused to discuss the circumstances except to say it was a “trumped up” and erroneous charge.

“I am black. I am a strong woman. And I am openly gay. I continue to feel each and every day that the culture at the Water Department has not changed and that upper management — from Commissioner Randy Conner on down — was setting me up to fail. I could see it. I could feel it,” Ealy said.

Flanked by other Water Management alums, Ealy spoke directly to Lightfoot.

“If anybody can understand the battles that I face as a black person, a woman, and someone who is openly gay, it should be the mayor,” Ealy said.

“We are asking the mayor — the first black female mayor of Chicago and the first openly gay mayor of Chicago — to stand with us in our fight for justice and respect.”

Attorney Victor Henderson filed the still-pending lawsuit accusing Chicago’s Department of Water Management of creating “a hostile and abusive work environment,” of violence, intimidation and retaliation that denied African American employees promotions, transfers and overtime.

Attorney Victor Henderson, with former employees of the city’s Department of Water Management at a 2019 news conference.
Attorney Victor Henderson, with former employees of the city’s Department of Water Management, speaks at a news conference on Thursday.
Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

Henderson made three demands of Lightfoot.

• Hold a closed-door, town hall meeting at the Department of Water Management to listen to the stories of black employees, both active and retired.

• Stop fighting the employees’ demand for all of the emails and personnel records they need to support their lawsuit.

• Above all, change the culture.

“Take a water hose and clean out the water department. Get rid of the cronyism. Get rid of the racism. Get rid of the nepotism. Get rid of the homophobia. Clean the place out. And that includes Commissioner Randy Conner, who’s an African American,” Henderson said.

As for the new leadership, he said, “It doesn’t matter what their color is. It doesn’t matter what their gender is. It doesn’t matter what their race is. ... When you have African Americans who are saying, ‘Get rid of an African American water commissioner,’ what does that tell you? All they want is fairness.”

Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey refused to comment on the pending lawsuit. But he called Henderson’s claim that the city has withheld records “categorically false.”

McCaffrey said the city has produced “more than 17,500 pages of documents” and offered last fall to to give Henderson access to employment records that, the city claims, would “clearly demonstrate that race did not factor into promotions or unwarranted discipline.”

Henderson likened the city’s stonewalling to former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to withhold the Laquan McDonald shooting video until after he was safely reelected in 2015, and even then only after a court order.

“This city has a history of ignoring racism. … A sordid history. ... This time around, it should be different,” Henderson said.

“Stop fighting the FOIA requests. Let the truth come out. Shine the light.”

Lightfoot played on her name with a campaign promise to “bring in the light.”It helped the former federal prosecutor portray herself as a change agent in a change election dominated by the City Hall corruption scandal that culminated in the racketeering indictment against Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th).