Water Management commissioner departs

Randy Conner resigned over the holidays, ending a run that saw him attempt to change the culture in a department that in recent years weathered a scandal over racist, sexist and homophobic emails.

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Randy Conner led the Chicago Department of Water Management for three-and-a-half years.

Randy Conner led the Chicago Department of Water Management for three-and-a-half years.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

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

Now, Lightfoot will have the chance to make her mark on that city department, which was at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals and the more recent scandal involving racist, sexist and homophobic emails.

Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner quietly resigned his $174,600-a-year job over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, ending a 3½-year run that saw him attempt — with mixed success — to change the culture of a department that has long been a bastion of white males.

Conner will be replaced, at least temporarily, by Andrea Cheng, a deputy commissioner whom Conner glowingly described in his Dec. 30 farewell email to the troops as “intelligent and capable” and “one of DWM’s own.” She started in the department in 2004 as a water research specialist.

“I never considered myself your boss. I have always considered us family. When I came to DWM, I was told that everyone was corrupt, no good and to fire everybody. But I replied that all they need is the right situation and a clear change of direction,” Conner wrote.

“The last 3½ years have been inspirational, eye opening, jaw dropping and just simply UN FRICKING BELIEVABLE. No one would believe the stories. But I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else besides this team. … Thank you all so much for trusting me and believing in what I tried to accomplish.”

In 2017, a shake-up triggered by racist, sexist and homophobic emails swept out Water Management Commissioner Barrett Murphy and top deputies William Bresnahan and Paul Hansen, brother of former Ald. Bernard Hansen (44th).

Inspector General Joe Ferguson stumbled upon the hate-filled emails while investigating allegations Paul Hansen was using his city email account to sell guns.

Conner, a veteran City Hall insider who is African American, replaced Murphy and was given carte blanche to clean house.

The changes Conner ordered did not go nearly far enough to satisfy former employees who filed a still-pending lawsuit accusing the department of creating “a hostile and abusive work environment,” of violence, intimidation and retaliation that denied African-American employees promotions, transfers and overtime.

In August 2019, they held a news conference to urge Lightfoot to “take a water hose and clean out the water department.”

Attorney Victor Henderson, with former employees of the city’s Department of Water Management at a 2019 news conference.

Attorney Victor Henderson is representing former employees of the city’s Department of Water Management in a pending lawsuit. Here, he is joined by some of those employees at an August 2019 news conference.

Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

Conner could not be reached for comment.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), a close friend, said Conner will be sorely missed by aldermen.

“He respected us. He knew our jobs and he knew what we were dealing with,” Beale said.

“You’re talking about somebody who knows the ins and outs of the city of Chicago. He knows what needs to be done and when it needs to get done. When you lose that institutional knowledge, it’s a huge loss to the city of Chicago.”

Beale acknowledged work remains to change the water department’s culture.

“He cleaned it out to the best of his ability. … He tried to put some of that fire out,” Beale said.

“But when you’re talking about institutional racism, it was years and years in the making and it’s gonna take years and years to undo it.”

Cheng has her work cut out for her.

She must sell and implement Lightfoot’s go-slow plan to replace lead service lines carrying water from street mains to nearly 380,000 Chicago homes.

Rather than ask all Chicago homeowners to share the cost, Lightfoot has opted to start small, with the city replacing lead service pipes at 600 homes in impoverished Chicago neighborhoods.

For homeowners willing to hire contractors and assume replacement costs, the city has offered to waive up to $3,300 in permit fees, connect the new service line to the water main and install a free water meter when the project is completed. To qualify, it must be a “stand-alone” request, not related to a renovation or expansion that requires a larger water line.

The city will also choose an entire block — roughly 50 homes — where all service lines will be replaced as the water main is replaced. The city has applied for an Illinois EPA revolving loan of up to $4 million to cover that program.

Chicago also is vying with Hammond for the right to sell Lake Michigan water to Joliet. If Chicago is chosen, the deal could bring $30 million in annual revenues. But Joliet would have to build a 31-mile pipeline and bankroll other pumping station infrastructure improvements costing $592 million to $810 million.

Conner helped Lightfoot pitch that plan to the Joliet City Council in one of his last official acts as commissioner.

The mayor’s office had no immediate comment on Conner’s departure.

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