A Chicago alderwoman now wants the park district CEO out over lifeguard abuse

Michael Kelly
Park District CEO Michael Kelly at a press conference Monday, August 16, 2021, at a beach on the city's South Side. Two city council members have now called for Kelly to resign over his handling of a lifeguard sex abuse scandal. Dan Mihalopolous / WBEZ
Michael Kelly
Park District CEO Michael Kelly at a press conference Monday, August 16, 2021, at a beach on the city's South Side. Two city council members have now called for Kelly to resign over his handling of a lifeguard sex abuse scandal. Dan Mihalopolous / WBEZ

A Chicago alderwoman now wants the park district CEO out over lifeguard abuse

A second member of Chicago’s City Council is calling for the head of the city’s park district to step down over his handling of widespread allegations of sexual abuse among lifeguards at public beaches and pools.

Ald. Rossana Rodríguez Sánchez, 33rd Ward, told WBEZ Saturday that Park District CEO Michael Kelly needs to go because of the lack of movement in an internal investigation into complaints of sexual harassment, abuse and assault. The probe began more than 18 months ago.

“This has been dragging on for a very long time, and it is very triggering and traumatic for the people who have experienced all of the abuse,” Rodríguez said. “I think that at this point, and with what has been reported, the least that could happen is that the CEO would step down.”

Rodríguez said the way park district leadership has handled the scandal has damaged the other “vital” functions of the agency.

“What we have is this incredible toxicity … and this lack of transparency, and it casts a terrible shadow on the great work that otherwise the Chicago Park District does,” Rodríguez said. “So I am really worried about the pace at which this investigation is moving, but also about the lack of movement and self awareness and recognition from the CEO that he shouldn’t be there right now.”

Park district spokeswoman Michele Lemons declined to comment.

Rodríguez’s remarks come just a few days after influential Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, said he wanted Kelly and Park District Board President Avis LaVelle out, and that he wanted “to see a lot of people gone” from the park district because it was clear they were not taking the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct seriously.

“The superintendent, a lot of staff down below, are all culpable in this thing,” Waguespack said in an interview 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.”

In April, WBEZ first revealed that the Chicago Park District’s inspector general was conducting a “broad investigation” into complaints that dozens of workers at the city’s pools and beaches regularly committed “sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, workplace violence, and other criminal acts” – sometimes against minors. Since then, eleven former lifeguards have come forward to WBEZ with additional allegations of sexual misconduct going back decades.

Rodríguez said Saturday that anyone at the park district who “knew that this was happening, that did not do their due diligence to ensure that this was resolved, to ensure that the victims were protected, to ensure that the victims were heard and that there was a quick response to these allegations should definitely step down.”

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 – 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.

Park district leaders announced last month they had hired an outside law firm to take over the investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations. That came after the lead investigator in the case was abruptly fired without explanation, and the agency’s inspector general was forced to resign.

Meanwhile, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has opened her own 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.

He finally 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.

Rodríguez said Waguespack has taken the lead on the City Council’s response to the scandal, and that she respected the work he was doing on it. She also said it was time for park district leaders to come before the council for hearings and “explain themselves.”

“I think that it definitely should happen,” Rodríguez said. “I think that we should have a hearing. This is outrageous, and we need to raise our voices to say that.”

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org. Dan Mihalopolous contributed to this story.