An influential alderman became the first member of the Chicago City Council to call for the removal of park district chief Michael Kelly over his handling of widespread lifeguard abuse allegations at public beaches and pools.
Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, also said the problems exposed by the sexual misconduct scandal in the park district’s lifeguarding ranks extend far beyond Kelly, who has been the CEO and general superintendent for a decade.
“The superintendent, a lot of staff down below, are all culpable in this thing,” Waguespack said in an interview this week on the podcast of Chicago Reader political columnist Ben Joravsky. “I want to see massive change there. I want to see a lot of people gone because they’re part of the culture, and their culture will not change as long as those people are there.”
Waguespack told Joravsky that he and another alderman met with top parks officials recently about the issue and he was deeply offended by what he described as a dismissive approach toward the widespread allegations of sexual violence in the park district’s Aquatics Department.
“The worst thing I heard about this whole thing was that someone – up at the top there – mentioned that it was nothing but disenchanted staff and sour grapes,” Waguespack said. “I almost bit my lip off. I’ve never been so disgusted hearing something like that, when young girls are being attacked, raped, assaulted, harassed.”
On Wednesday evening, Waguespack told WBEZ the official who made that statement in the meeting with him was Avis LaVelle, the park district board’s president. He said he thought LaVelle also should resign.
Looking at how Kelly and LaVelle have responded to the allegations from lifeguards, Waguespack said, “I think the Me Too movement must have passed them by.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot repeatedly has sidestepped questions about Kelly’s future, even as former lifeguards who alleged they were abused on the job have called on the mayor to remove her parks boss.
Kelly and LaVelle were appointed by Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, and have defended their handling of the lifeguard abuse scandal.
Kelly, LaVelle and the park district’s spokeswoman did not immediately reply to Waguespack’s comments Thursday. But Kelly – who has led the park district since 2011 and is paid $230,000 a year as CEO and general superintendent – said last month he had no plans to step down.
In the interview with Joravsky, Waguespack also staunchly defended former park district Deputy Inspector General Nathan Kipp, who led an investigation into complaints against dozens of employees until he was fired without explanation last month. Kipp was terminated on the same day he alleged top parks officials had interfered in the inspector general’s probe, which began in March 2020.
Park district officials have denied those charges, but Waguespack said, “Until Nathan Kipp is rehired, Nathan Kipp is put back in, I think other people should be let go, including the superintendent.”
Waguespack said he believed Kipp was fired “because they realized this guy was actually doing his job,” by conducting a thorough investigation into the matter.
Kipp’s boss, Inspector General Elaine Little, resigned two weeks ago after WBEZ reported that Little herself was the subject of a conflict-of-interest investigation at a previous job, when she was director of investigations at Cook County’s juvenile jail.
Park district leaders announced last week they had hired an outside law firm to pick up where Little left off.
By that time, though, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx had opened an investigation into what she said were allegations of “certain criminal conduct, including but not limited to, past and present sexual assault and harassment, obstruction, witness tampering, concealment of criminal conduct and official misconduct of Park District employees and members of the Board.”
Kelly received the initial complaint of “extreme abuse” at North Avenue Beach from a then-17-year-old former lifeguard on Feb. 7, 2020, records show.
He immediately replied to the girl and promised 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 former lifeguard sent a separate complaint to Lightfoot, and her aides shared those allegations with the park district chief.
The initial complainant, who is now 19, said Kelly contacted her family after WBEZ revealed the existence of the internal probe in April, telling her he was under heavy pressure and asking her to let him know if she learned more about the course of the inspector general’s investigation.
Waguespack said he was convinced sexual violence has been an “endemic problem” at Chicago’s beaches and pools for generations, and the public should be concerned about how it’s been mishandled.
“Your kid who might be swimming at the pool, your kid who might want to be a lifeguard – this is not going away by brushing it aside and saying we’re going to massage some of the edges of our policies here,” said the alderman, who’s been in office since 2007.
He added, “If we don’t put a stop to it, our children and future lifeguards could be put in the situation they’ve been in for the last few decades, which is completely wrong.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.