McHenry former, current aldermen violated anti-harassment policy in comments about city worker: investigation

The McHenry City Hall's City Council Chamber entrance on Dec. 13, 2022.

McHenry Alderman Victor Santi and former Alderman Shawn Strach violated the city’s anti-harassment and whistleblower policy for comments made about a city employee to other local officials, the city’s labor attorney has determined.

Labor counsel John Kelly said in his findings that the employee who filed the complaint should “be informed that there will be no further conduct of this nature by any city employee or elected official” and “should also be assured that there will be no harassment or retaliation for [the] complaint.”

The attorney’s three-paragraph report summarizing his investigation came April 22, a week after Strach resigned his 5th Ward alderman seat. Strach cited personal and health reasons for his April 16 resignation, City Administrator Suzanne Ostrovsky said, adding, “That is all. There was no request for [Strach] to resign. That had nothing to do with this as far as [Strach] has said.”

According to an email chain provided by the city in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, a city employee made a formal written complaint to Ostrovsky on March 7. According to that email, the employee alleged Strach “has previously approached Mayor [Wayne] Jett with the allegations that I am ‘sleeping with [redacted].’” The email went on to say that Strach “has now approached [Ostrovsky] with these same accusation and apparently has also spoke to other aldermen/women about this accusation.”

While the email thread was heavily redacted, the report from Kelly indicates the employee’s complaint was that “Strach made allegations that the complainant was having an inappropriate relationship with [redacted],” indicating the person in question “holds a [redacted] agreement with the city.”

The complainant referred to the alleged comments as “defamation” in the email to the city administrator and asked to be advised on “recourse.”

Kelly wrote that he found the employee policy “was violated by former Alderman Strach and Alderman Santi.” That finding was “based on comments Alderman Stratch made to City Administrator Ostrovsky” in a March 4 telephone call,” Kelly wrote, adding he “also find it credible that Alderman Santi repeated this allegation in his telephone call with City Administrator Ostrovsky on March 5.”

Contacted this week, Santi declined to comment on the attorney’s finding other than to say, “It is a personnel matter in the city of McHenry and will be resolved through the city of McHenry staff.”

Strach did not reply to a request for comment.

The portion of the city’s personnel policy manual Kelly said the two violated states in part: “Although conduct may not rise to the level of unlawful harassment from a legal perspective, the city wants to protect its employees from abuse and to prevent conduct from becoming so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of an employee’s employment, create an abusive, intimidating or hostile working environment.”

The section goes on to define harassment as “unwarranted and unwanted verbal or nonverbal conduct that threatens, intimidates, annoys or insults another person where such conduct has the purpose or effect of creating an offensive, intimidating, degrading and/or hostile working environment and/or interferes with and/or adversely affects a person’s performance.”

The incident is an “education issue” for the McHenry City Council, Ostrovsky said, adding that additional anti-harassment training will be offered to the council members when Strach’s replacement is onboarded.

“Our plan, organizationally, is a pretty significant onboarding ... as well for additional training” to prevent a similar incident in the future, Ostrovsky said.

Illinois law requires annual anti-harassment training for all employees, Ostrovsky noted, adding that “elected officials are in somewhat of a different category. We can’t require them to do any training,” but the council can be provided with information.

Jett said the new 5th Ward alderperson to replace Strach will be sworn in on May 13.

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