WOODMERE — Council President Jennifer Mitchell Earley filed a formal complaint against Mayor Ben Holbert for alleged harassment and a hostile work environment, according to a Jan. 23 email to village human resources consultant Jennifer Osborn.
The mayor said the accusations are untrue.
Ms. Earley, who served as council president in 2011, 2018, 2019 and 2020 said that she felt “harassed and bullied” by the mayor.
“For the last year and in my capacity as council president, I have received special scrutiny and concentrated, isolated, toxic attention from Ben Holbert,” Ms. Earley wrote in her complaint to Ms. Osborn. “I have felt harassed and bullied by the invectives and the maniacal, vitriolic diatribes directed to me by Mr. Holbert via email, during council meetings (and on the record) as well as said about me to present and former councilmen during ‘private’ meetings.”
In a special council meeting on Feb. 24, council voted to hire special investigator Tom Greve to further review the complaint, according to Law Director Frank Consolo. Ms. Earley and Mayor Holbert were asked to leave during the executive session. The motion to hire Mr. Greve at a cost not to exceed $2,500 passed 5-0 and Councilwoman Glenda Todd-Miller abstained.
Mr. Consolo said that the mayor will remain in office during the investigation.
Mayor Holbert said that he is not sure yet if he will file a complaint against Ms. Earley. The mayor and the council president have had a multitude of disagreements for more than a year. They have not had a conversation since November of 2018, according to Mayor Holbert.
In the Jan. 27 edition of Ms. Earley’s village newsletter, which she pays for out of pocket and hand delivers to every residence in the village, she wrote that she will no longer “endure [the mayor’s] misogynistic, libelous attacks.”
“I’m disgusted by it,” Mayor Holbert said of the newsletter on Monday. “My sons read it, my sister read it and my sister-in-law read it. People who know me know I’m not a misogynist.”
The mayor named various women whom he respects and gets along with well, including Ms. Osborn, his assistant Daphne Evans, the village’s event planner Vicki Dansby and former marketing consultant Mary Flenner.
“The only one who hasn’t been talked to is Jennifer Mitchell Earley, and that’s because of her own doing,” Mayor Holbert said.
In her newsletter, Ms. Earley also questioned the mayor’s recent trip to San Francisco, California and whether he spent village funds or personal funds. The mayor said that on Jan. 22, he learned that his wife, Joyce, had fallen while on a business trip and needed emergency surgery. He flew out to take care of her and agreed that the trip was for personal matters.
According to village credit card statements, the mayor’s village credit card was used in California on Jan. 22 and Jan. 24 for two Uber trips, which cost $35.16 and $11.08.
Mayor Holbert said that he was not aware that the village credit card was charged for the Uber rides until this past Monday. He explained that on his Uber app, there are options for different credit cards to use. His default is the village credit card, he said, because usually when he’s out of town, it is for village business. He added that he tried to switch the charges to his personal card, but it has been 30 days since the Uber ride, so the app will not permit that change.
“I just wrote a check for that amount and submitted it back to the village. It was not malicious and it was not an attempt to defraud,” Mayor Holbert said. “Now that I found out that the error took place, we corrected that right away. It was not an intentional thing. I’m glad it was brought to my attention to get it rectified.”
Ms. Earley also wrote in the newsletter that the mayor has “personal prejudices” in her complaint to Ms. Osborn.
“His unwanted overtures for personal meetings, faux attempts of warmth via unsolicited handshakes and shoulder-pats, together with his continued attempts to assail me on the council floor, numerous disparaging emails and constant denigrations are disturbing and quite frankly, harassing and contribute to the ongoing hostile work environment,” she wrote.
Mayor Holbert gave an explanation for what scenario Ms. Earley was referring to in the complaint. He said that at the January council meeting, he tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention, then wished her a happy new year. The mayor said that Ms. Earley did not respond, so he sat back down in his chair.
“That’s why I’ve maintained that I will meet with the council president but I will not meet with her by myself,” he said. “I don’t need any accusations of me being inappropriate and no one being there to confirm or deny it.”
Former Planning and Zoning Commission chairman and resident David Corney wrote a letter addressed to council and residents in response to Ms. Earley’s January newsletter. Mr. Corney’s letter remains on a table in public view inside Village Hall.
He references how Ms. Earley opened her newsletter with political opinions about President Donald Trump and the impeachment trial, then compared his administration to Mayor Holbert. Mr. Corney said that her “expressed hatred of Donald Trump” has nothing to do with village matters. He added that the newsletter shows a “personal ‘dislike’ of, and an obvious attack upon, our mayor.”
Mr. Corney wrote in his letter that council should let the mayor carry out the tasks that he was elected to do.
According to Mr. Consolo, a typical hostile work environment claim is between an employer and employee. Ms. Earley, however, is not the mayor’s employee and he does not have control over her, Mr. Consolo said. Both are elected to their offices by residents.
Due to the unique nature of the case, the law director said that he decided to recommend a special investigator. Mr. Greve had not reached out to Mayor Holbert as of early this week, the mayor said. Ms. Earley declined to comment.