Two prominent Chicago aldermen on Thursday criticized the Chicago Park District’s handling of a long-running investigation into complaints of widespread sexual violence against lifeguards at the city’s public beaches and pools.
“The Chicago Park District must do better,” the two aldermen, Scott Waguespack and Michele Smith, wrote in a letter to the park district’s chief executive officer and general superintendent, Michael Kelly, and its board president, Avis LaVelle.
In an interview, Waguespack also called for greater transparency from parks officials, who have dodged questions about the issue and kept the investigation secret for a year.
“I think they’ve done not enough for the victims but also for all the citizens of Chicago who are expecting to have this out in the open, to understand where we’re going to go in the future and how we’re going to improve the working conditions for all these lifeguards,” Waguespack said.
For more than 16 months, the park district’s inspector general has conducted a “broad” probe into complaints that dozens of workers in Chicago’s Aquatics Department regularly committed sexual harassment, abuse and assault against teenage girls and young women working as lifeguards, a WBEZ investigation first revealed in April.
Three veteran male lifeguards who faced serious accusations left the park district, but investigators have said they are far from done with their work and expect to take further action against other employees. Their probe also will address any “systemic failings” within the agency relating to the misconduct, according to confidential reports obtained by WBEZ.
In Thursday’s letter, Waguespack and Smith said they were “deeply disturbed by the reports.” Lifeguards have told WBEZ that the problems with misogyny and misconduct at the beaches and pools began in the 1970s, shortly after women began working as lifeguards.
“Some of these allegations reported by media go back decades, indicating a systemic issue around the reporting, investigating, and disciplining of cases of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment,” Waguespack and Smith wrote.
The two aldermen demanded a meeting with Kelly and LaVelle, and said they expected them “to provide an explanation of what has happened, what changes are being made, and how the City will assist in those efforts.”
They also asked Kelly and LaVelle to turn over any reports that have been given to the park district’s board pertaining to the sexual misconduct allegations.
Neither Kelly nor LaVelle immediately responded to WBEZ’s requests for comment on the letter.
On Thursday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot repeatedly declined to answer questions about whether she thought Kelly had acted swiftly enough, or whether he should be reprimanded for waiting nearly six weeks to forward the initial complaint to the park district’s inspector general.
“When these allegations arise, they have to be taken seriously and action has to be swift,” Lightfoot said at an unrelated news conference. “So I feel like they’ve taken the steps that are necessary, but we can never rest on issues like this.”
The park district has repeatedly declined to answer questions about Kelly’s delay in forwarding the complaint letter.
Last month, Waguespack and Smith introduced a proposal at the City Council calling on the city government’s own independent watchdog to join in the investigation being conducted by the park district inspector general’s office.
But Lightfoot said she opposed that proposal, even though the park district’s internal watchdog, Elaine Little, recently said her office lacks the resources to complete the unprecedented investigation.
In the new letter to Kelly and LaVelle, Waguespack and Smith note that they lead City Council committees – and Waguespack points out that he helps control the flow of some city funds to the park district as chairman of the powerful Finance Committee.
He said it was his “fiduciary duty to the City to make sure that taxpayer dollars do not fund ongoing systemic issues like those outlined above.”
The investigation at the park district began with complaint letters last year from two former lifeguards. One of them contacted Kelly in February 2020, and he quickly promised the young woman he would refer the matter to the agency’s inspector general.
But Kelly did not do as he said for 41 days – until another woman sent complaints to Lightfoot and to the park district’s manager of beaches and pools, Adam Bueling.
Kelly has led the park district since 2011. Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, appointed Kelly and LaVelle to their current positions.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @dmihalopoulos.