Focus on Parks (and Youth) ... Not Parking!
Come to City Council tonight to speak in support of Kevin ... or to simply stand in solidarity with him. Council starts a 6 p.m. Public comment begins around 8 p.m.
This past Friday morning, I interviewed Kevin Brown, manager of Evanston's Youth and Young Adult Division (also known as Team Outreach) at the Evanston Public Library. Kevin was under a deadline to sign an admission of wrongdoing that evening relating to alleged parking infractions by his team members and parking ticket payment by Kevin for City-issued tickets on his team's City-issued vehicles, using his City credit card.
Kevin's choice: sign a form admitting to allegations he denies--or be terminated.
1. His team's City vehicles (or personal vehicles with City placards) have been singled out for parking in two-hour visitor spaces at the Civic Center despite the fact that many other City vehicles park there too--with no ramifications.
2. His superiors condoned and approved his use of a City credit card to pay for his team's tickets, issued by the City, and that it has been standard practice throughout the City's Parks and Rec. Department to have staff parking tickets voided or paid by the City.
3. That his team's parking infractions, number of tickets paid for (nine), and total cost ($583) over a three-year period have been mischaracterized by the City as a constant and blatant disregard of rules.
Around 9 p.m. on Friday, Kevin was terminated.
DE's take: EVEN if any of the City's allegations are true, terminating Kevin Brown over parking infractions and parking tickets is akin to using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. It would benefit the community for the City to do an independent investigation across the Parks, Rec. & Community Services Dept. regarding parking and ticket-payment practices. Finally, Kevin's termination should be overturned.
Here's our conversation [slightly edited for length] from earlier that day.
DE: How are you feeling this about where things stand?
KB: I have been under such attack by certain senior staff in the City since almost the day since I arrived in February 2012, and part of it stems from the fact that I’m an outspoken person when it come to equity, race, racism, and justice. That bothers certain people. Because of that I think there’s been retaliation.
DE: Have you had a lot of support?
KB: Lots of fantastic support from a wonderful community. I have gotten hundreds of emails and calls, some from people I have never met. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and I are close friends. She's a fantastic supporter. I've got support fromCicely L. Fleming, 9th Ward Alderwoman, Ald. Tom Suffredin, 6th, 2nd Ward Ald. Peter Braithwaite, and Robin Rue Simmons 5th Ward Alderman. They've all spoken to the interim City Manager on my behalf.
I think people see that what’s really going on is not about parking tickets. Especially since this has been going on since 2012 and the ticket situation since 2017.
DE: What could happen between now and 5 p.m. that could turn things around?
KB: They could drop the whole matter. They could independently investigate. If they had goodwill and want to get to the bottom of it, they could say, you know what, we talked to some other people in your department, we believe you.
If there were a real investigation and they talked to staff throughout Recreation, they would hear--because staff have called me and told me--well, I did the same thing, or I got tickets voided, so why is it an issue now?
DE: For the last couple of years, it seems the city has been trying to dismantle your division. Now the team is going to the Heath and Human Services Department. Is that a good thing?
KB: I think that would be a good thing.
DE: Do you think there’s a reason they wanted to get rid of you before that move?
KB: I have heard that there will possibly be a budget deficit in 2020 and I’ve been very outspoken to protect the program. I think it's been tremendously impactful on the Evanston and I see no reason why it should be cut back. It's only a million and half dollars anyway--it's not a lot of money. But for the money, we’ve got a huge bang for the buck. If I'm not present, it will be more difficult to protect it.
DE: Tell me about the parking tickets.
KB: There were 14 between 2017 and 2019. Of 14 tickets, a number of those were voided. So actually there were only nine tickets that I paid for with a credit card over a three-year period.
What makes it crazy, and I want to make people really understand: these are City vehicles, in the City parking lot, used by City employees, on City business. So people have asked me, "Why is the City ticketing its own vehicles?" That’s a long story. That’s a policy issue.
But the other part, these were outreach staff engaged in their work. Two of the tickets--one was for expired vehicle tag, and the other was for a vehicle being towed. And people have asked me, "What are you supposed to do about that?" What they told me to do. Go get the vehicle. I asked the Assistant Director Karen Hawk, "You want me to use the credit card?" She said, use the credit card.
DE: So you’re saying they did a turnaround. They told you how to deal with things and now they’re accusing you of doing what they told you to do.
KB: Exactly. They’re saying they did not give authorization. I’m saying, why would I do that on my own? There’s no motive behind it. Plus, to me it just makes no sense.
These are City cars or staff cars displaying an Official City of Evanston Business placard which actually allows them to park in the City of Evanston parking lot in any space. It says so on the placard. In fact, when displaying the placard they should not have even received a ticket. These people are working for our residents.
The City says that an email was sent telling employees not to use the two-hour spaces. But as I said, even after that email, Ms. Hawk told me to pay for the tickets on the tow and car with expired tags.
I think people should also know that for a credit card transaction to be approved, it must be approved by the Assistant Director and the Director. Just like on your credit card statement, the vendor and the transaction is identified. Both Assistant Director and Director approved every single transaction. They never questioned them and never raised any red flags. They did that because they directed and approved this stuff.
DE: But they sent you emails over a period of months with reminders about where your staff should park and where they shouldn't.
KB: Yes. But if you read closely, those emails come almost one year apart. That's because it was never a consistent issue that anyone was concerned about. No-one ever approached me until October 31. That was the first conversation they had with me. I was at a meeting with Mayor Hagerty. Lawrence Hemingway was supposed to be in that meeting. He said he wasn't going to make the meeting, but told me to go to his office after the meeting.
I go downstairs to his office, and he’s there with Jennifer Lin [HR Division Manager]. They have a memo, and they say "You’re being disciplined over these parking tickets." And I said, "What are you talking about? I was told to do these things." They didn’t say anything else. They gave me the memorandum. I was in total shock. I said, "I’ll have to get an attorney and I’ll have to deal with this." That was it. I was placed on administrative leave. That was the last time I was in the office.
DE: The issue--even if what you were doing was wrong--wasn’t according to policy--it seems the punishment is way more than the infraction.
KB: That’s why it’s retaliatory. This is retaliation. It’s almost text book. It's a pretext. That’s what I believe this is.
DE: It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t worry that this would be transparent.
KB: That’s what I thought. This is so transparent, they can not be serious.
DE: If they said to you, "This parking has become visitor parking, don’t park in it," why did outreach staff continue to park in it?
KB: City vehicles park in two-hour spaces all the time and never get ticketed. For some reason, on the few occasions, the City outreach vehicles were ticketed.
DE: So do you think you were you targeted?
KB: I do. Race appears to be the reason. My staff is African American and Latino.
DE: And when you told Karen Hawk and Lawrence Hemingway that your staff felt targeted, what did they do?
KB: I sent Mr. Hemingway an email about the issue in March 2019. No response. He never responded. First response I got was at the meeting on October 31.
DE: Why do you think this came from Hemingway?
KB: First, the memo is written by Mr. Hemingway, but Mr. Hemingway did not act alone. I have information that the last City Manager had this information in June 2019 and waited until he could leave our community.
There are some City Council members who are working with the interim City Manager to try and dial this back. And I have an attorney, Shawn Jones, who reached out to the City. We appealed the proposed discipline. We attempted to request a hearing with the interim city manager. To appeal. They said you can’t appeal it unless you sign the letter. But I can't sign the letter because I’m not admitting to something I was directed to do. So I can’t sign a letter that says I wasn’t directed to do it.
DE: How do you think the interim City Manager could back down?
KB: At this point, it isn't about anyone backing down. It is about justice and doing what is right. I think that this resonates with people, because they can see that there is something very wrong happening. The truth about all of this would come out in an independent investigation where they bring in an outside firm and investigate my claims. If that happened, I know I'd be fully exonerated.
DE: So have other people from Parks and Rec. been penalized for parking issues?
KB: I don’t know if anyone else paid a ticket with a credit card, but I do know for a fact that numerous staff have gotten their tickets voided for the same infractions.
DE: So what's the difference between having tickets voided by going to a superior and requesting the tickets be voided, and paying for them with a City credit card?
Technically there’s no difference. The only difference is that there’s no transfer of funds. Right? The City still gets the money, though. When you pay a ticket on a City car on City property, it’s really being transferred from one City budget to another.
DE: If it’s voided, the parking division isn’t getting any money, but you’re also not taking money out of Parks and Rec.
KB: It’s a bad policy. A better policy, if they think it is a serious issue, would be to use the regular discipline policy. That way staff time and money wouldn't be wasted on staff trying to do their jobs.
DE: Why did you never say to your staff, "Guys, you need to pay your tickets?"
KB: Because there had been a practice in Recreation of people getting their tickets paid or voided when they are performing their work. And why would staff be paying tickets on City cars in the City parking lot where they are supposed to be?
DE: So it was the culture in the department …
KB: Right. Would you ticket a police car parked over two hours in the City parking lot? It's a City vehicle.
DE: And you weren't doing it for any personal gain.
KB: These are City cars in the City parking lot driven by my staff conducting City business. I did not drive any of these vehicles.
It’s exhausting for me because it’s embarrassing for me. No-one wants their business in the whole community, but I just felt like this situation was so outrageous, what they’re doing. Like I said, I was really kind of upset that nobody ever came to me and said this is a real problem.
DE: That is the missing piece. That even if what you and your department were doing wasn’t right, it was condoned till it wasn’t condoned. You were sent emails and 'gentle reminders,' but no-one said anything else till October 31.
KB: And this was over a three-year period and there were two emails about one year apart.
DE: If you’re fired, what will you do?
KB: First, I will appeal the decision. Next, I’m going to remain committed to this community. I’m going to be helping folks in this community. Finally, obviously I need to make a living. I’ll be unemployed like a lot of people and I’ll be looking for employment. That’s the bottom line.
DE: So let's talk about some of the charges. They're accusing you of theft and unauthorized possession of city property.
KB: If you use City credit card, they charge a $1 fee. They're accusing me of theft because of the fees a city-contracted company charges for paying a parking ticket--and those fees don't even amount to $10. And you’re calling me a thief. That’s when you know it’s retaliation.
KB: They're saying I didn’t enforce their policies with my staff. And of course they’ve never asked the staff--did anyone mention parking issues?
DE: Did you?
KB: Of course. But there was no investigation done at all because if they had investigated, they’d have never written that.
DE: Failing to disclose.
KB: They say I wrote "outreach parking" instead of "outreach parking ticket" on the credit card online form we have to complete. Even thought the transaction specifies a payment to City of Evanston. It’s very clear. You can’t miss it.
The way you know I’m telling the truth is because there are other tickets where I’m even more descriptive. I said, "vehicle towed by City of Evanston." And there are four other times. And those tickets were larger than the tickets they cite, and they say I'm not being truthful.
This is a very unfortunate situation driven by actions that are unlawful. Parking is the reason cited, but people are so much more intelligent than that.
I’m an honorable person with a very long history of service to others. I would like to continue that service. I am hopeful that these allegations can be properly investigated.
DE: Is there anything else you want to say?
KB: I feel really bad for my staff to be put in this position. It’s hard for them. It’s hard to get the work done when you’re under assault like this, and those are the people I worry about most. We’ve done a lot of good work for young people and families in Evanston and I’m very concerned about the continuation of that work. I’m not sure that’s going to continue in the same way.
In 30 plus years, I’ve never been accused of anything like this on any other job, no personnel actions like this, nothing illegal, nothing untoward in 35 years. I have a really exceptional record.
DE: So it comes down to parking tickets.
KB: When I think about it, just sitting in my chair, I say, I’m about to be terminated for paying for parking tickets on City vehicles in the City of Evanston Civic Center parking lot, for staff on City business. It's not for my own vehicle. Not to benefit myself in any way. So it is a little unreal for me to even have to explain this to the community.
Here's an interview I did with Kevin in 2017 about his work with Team Outreach.
More from DE about Kevin's current situation here.
Evanston RoundTable editorial from yesterday.
[Photos: Kevin with his team; City vehicles parked in two-hour visitor parking spaces]