Chicago Park District leaders on Wednesday chose a City Hall veteran as the agency’s interim leader as they grapple with the fallout of a widespread sexual misconduct scandal involving lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools.
The Chicago Park District board unanimously approved the appointment of Rosa Escareno as interim general superintendent Wednesday afternoon. She’s coming out of her recent retirement to take the role, after having served under three Chicago mayors over more than thirty years.
She replaces longtime parks CEO Michael Kelly, who resigned over the weekend after Mayor Lori Lightfoot, several City Council members and ex-lifeguards called for him to step down, saying he has mishandled the investigation into lifeguard abuse.
“It’s been a long, difficult journey to get here, and it has not been without pain,” Park District Board President Avis LaVelle said during Wednesday’s board meeting. “We … remain committed to seeking the truth about the culture of tolerance that has been allowed to flourish here, and we will continue to do whatever it takes to root out and destroy that culture.”
The shake-ups at the park district follow a series of WBEZ stories about the handling of the probe, starting in April, when the station first reported the agency’s inspector general was investigating complaints of sexual harassment, abuse, assault and other misconduct against dozens of employees in the Aquatics Department.
WBEZ’s subsequent investigation would reveal complaints of endemic sexual misconduct against lifeguards – some of them underage girls – going back decades.
In her most extensive public comments on the growing scandal to date, LaVelle sought to place blame for the bungling of the investigation at Kelly’s feet.
“Superintendent Kelly is not accused of sexual assault or harassment,” LaVelle said before Wednesday’s vote. “But he is guilty of deceit and failing to take critical steps to promote the zero-tolerance standards that must replace this frat boy culture that has been allowed to flourish here for too long.”
LaVelle did not offer details on Kelly’s “deceit,” but revealed that she put him on suspension Friday night following a special, closed-door meeting of the board. That meeting ended with LaVelle saying board members took no action against Kelly.
As the park district board met Wednesday, Lightfoot told reporters at an unrelated press conference that “there was information that came to me” shortly before Friday’s board meeting that prompted her to seek Kelly’s removal. But she declined to say what the information was, citing the park district’s ongoing investigation, now being overseen by a former federal prosecutor, Valarie Hays.
On Saturday, Lightfoot publicly called for Kelly’s resignation. He quit hours later.
Kelly has faced intense criticism for how he’s handled the park district’s internal probe into widespread sexual abuse and assault against lifeguards – which has now dragged on for more than 20 months.
He received the first complaint of “extreme abuse” at the city’s iconic North Avenue Beach from a then-17-year-old former lifeguard on Feb. 7, 2020. He immediately promised the girl he would send her highly detailed, 11-page report on lifeguard misconduct to the inspector general’s office for a complete investigation.
But Kelly did not do that for 41 days. And he forwarded the initial report to the inspector general only after a second woman sent a separate complaint to Lightfoot, which was forwarded to the park district’s leadership.
The first complainant, who is now 19, told WBEZ that Kelly contacted her family after news of the investigation became public earlier this year, telling her he was under heavy pressure and asking her to let him know if she learned more about the course of the probe.
But on Wednesday, LaVelle also seemed to address criticism of the governing board’s handling of the scandal and why the investigation hasn’t moved faster.
“I’ve had some of those same questions myself, and we share your anger,” LaVelle said. “But we are committed to act on the facts as they unfold.”
Lavelle herself has faced pressure to resign from at least one influential alderman as more and more elected officials have stepped up their criticism in recent weeks. As the park district board met Wednesday, Lightfoot at a separate event dodged a question about LaVelle’s own future, saying “I think we have to take one thing at a time.”
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office has launched an investigation into not only the alleged sex crimes, but also the park district’s official response and whether there was any “obstruction, witness tampering, concealment of criminal conduct and official misconduct of Park District employees and members of the Board,” her office has said.
Foxx’s office got involved as the park district inspector general’s probe into the allegations devolved into chaos.
In August, the inspector general fired the lead investigator on the case without explanation, on the same day he alleged that park district leaders were trying to “obstruct” his work. And a few weeks later, the inspector general quit after WBEZ reported that she herself had been the subject of an investigation into “alleged conflicts and wrongdoing” when she worked at Cook County’s juvenile jail.
On Wednesday, Escareno vowed to be transparent in how she’ll handle the situation going forward as interim leader of the park district. She previously worked as an aide to former mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley.
“There needs to be some serious conversations, some serious review of existing processes to ensure that we continue to regain the trust of the people of Chicago and that employees will look to the park district as a great place to work,” Escareno said.
WBEZ city government reporter Mariah Woelfel contributed.