During the morning hours of April 25, Andersonville resident Leo Meere allegedly heard anti-LGBTQ comments from a Chicago Department of Water Management ( DWM ) employee when he was walking home from the grocery store.
Meere's neighborhood was having the water and sewer lines replaced at the time. But that morning, one of the DWM employees' cars turned the wrong way down a one way street and nearly hit Meere, he alleges.
"I yelled out, 'Hey buddy, it is a one-way street,'" Meere told Windy City Times ( WCT ). "The driver responded, 'Fuck off, homo. I am working here.' As the car got closer, I could see the driver was wearing a yellow vest like the other city employees doing sewer line work on my block. I said, 'You still have to follow the law. You almost hit me.' He said, 'Who are you to tell me what to do? It is people like you who are what's wrong with this country.'"
Meere took a picture of the DWM employee's car, which was parked in the wrong direction, to document the alleged incident. The vanity license plate had the person's initials and last name on it. Meere said the DWM employee got out of his car and started following him down the alley toward his apartment. Meere hurried to his door because he did not feel safe anymore.
The first thing Meere did was call former 40th Ward Ald. Patrick O'Connor's office to report the alleged incident. They asked that he email the details to them.
"It became obvious that no one in O'Connor's office was genuinely concerned in addressing the situation," said Meere. "Although this happened after he lost the election but before his successor Andre Vasquez was sworn in, O'Connor was still being paid by the city to do his job. It was very frustrating to be dismissed when I reached out to my elected official for help."
Meere also contacted the DWM on April 25 and left a voicemail message, but said the department never called back. It was only after posting about the alleged incident on an Andersonville neighborhood Facebook page the same day that Meere was reportedly able to speak to Vasquez ( whom he tagged in the post ) via direct message. According to Meere, Vasquez gave DWM Deputy Commissioner Julie Hernandez his contact number; he said she called him that afternoon.
"Julie left me a voice message saying she was sorry this happened, that she would look into this for me, and I would hear back from her the next day," said Meere. "She never called back, and did not return any of my calls over the course of the next two weeks."
Meere said nothing more happened until he posted about the lack of a response when someone asked him for an update on the original Facebook message. He said another concerned 40th Ward citizen called Hernandez to inquire about the DWM response after the update was posted. Meere said Hernandez left him an angry voicemail message for having people "harass her" at work, and that she had already turned the matter over to DWM Director of Administration Jackie Toledowhich Meere said was a surprise to him.
When Meere called Hernandez back, he said, she never apologized and continued to yell at him. Meere then contacted Toledo, and she told him to send her the narrative and picture. He did so immediately, and Toledo said she would phone him if she had further questions.
Meere emailed Toledo back when he did not hear from her, and said she told him the matter would be sent to the Office of the Inspector General ( OIG ). She later gave him the name of a contact there, who he said never returned his call.
When WCT contacted Toledo's office, the department responded that the incident was escalated to City of Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson's office for further review. City of Chicago OIG Director of Communications and Outreach Natalie A. Kuriata told Windy City Times that complaints are reviewed and assessed according to several factors to see if they will open an investigation, refer the matter to the appropriate city department or decline to investigate. These factors include the complaints' credibility and investigative and office resources availability, among others.
"After reviewing the complaint, OIG referred it back to the DWM, where it could be more expeditiously handled," Kuriata emailed WCT. "In addition, given the nature of the complainant's allegation, OIG recommended that DWM counsel its employees on the City's Diversity and Equal Employment Opportunity ( EEO ) Policy."
"The DWM takes very seriously any allegations of discriminatory behavior on the part of our employees," DWM Media Affairs Director Megan Vidis emailed WCT. "The OIG referred this matter back to the DWM and recommended EEO counseling for the employee in question, which he has received. EEO training is mandatory for all DWM employees and addresses eliminating harassment and other types of discrimination in the workplace."
Following responses from the DWM and OIG offices, WCT reached out to Vasquez, who responded since the article initially run. "In looking at the steps that were taken and the status of it currently, I think it is absolutely fair and important to ask what accountability there is in place for our city departments," he said. "Language and vitriol like the type that was described have no place in our city or coming from our city workers. We want a government that is transparent, accessible and accountable. The neighbors in our city deserve that much, and we will continue to work toward that end."
"I did not deserve to be intimidated and verbally harassed by someone who was on the clock and being paid by my tax dollars to do a city job," said Meere. "Chicago specifically lists sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes of people, but this government employee chose to use anti-LGBTQ slurs against me and that is not right."
What disturbed Meere most was the way he was "brushed off every time I inquired about the matter. All I wanted was for them to do their jobs and they did not seem to want to help me. In the end, that was worse than what happened to me when that city employee hurled those anti-LGBTQ comments at me."
Meere said that he has only lived in Chicago for two years, and that the first time he had to directly engage with city employees he was met with hostilitywhich is not what he thought would happen in a "supposedly pro-LGBTQ place to live."