Chicago’s Park District Chief faces mounting pressure to quit over a lifeguard abuse scandal

Park District CEO Michael Kelly at a press conference on the beach
Park District CEO Michael Kelly at a press conference Monday, August 16, 2021, at a beach on the city's South Side. Dan Mihalopoulos / WBEZ
Park District CEO Michael Kelly at a press conference on the beach
Park District CEO Michael Kelly at a press conference Monday, August 16, 2021, at a beach on the city's South Side. Dan Mihalopoulos / WBEZ

Chicago’s Park District Chief faces mounting pressure to quit over a lifeguard abuse scandal

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

The number of elected officials calling for the removal of the Chicago Park District’s embattled top official rose sharply Friday night, with the City Council’s 18-member Progessive Caucus saying it wanted the “immediate resignation” of $230,000-a-year CEO and General Superintendent Michael Kelly.

Also Friday, park district board members met behind closed doors for 3-½ hours – but took no action to address the growing sexual misconduct scandal involving lifeguards at the city’s public beaches and pools.

Board President Avis LaVelle would only say they discussed “various employment and personnel issues.” When the seven-member board emerged from the virtual, executive session, LaVelle announced, “No further action was taken. That concludes the board meeting.”

The board members heard from former federal prosecutor Valarie Hays, whose firm was hired recently to continue an internal investigation into lifeguard abuse after the park district’s inspector general resigned abruptly last month.

Hays’ firm, Arnold & Porter, signed a deal on Sept. 20 to “provide legal services to the board in connection with” the probe of sexual misconduct allegations and the park district’s response to it.

The firm is charging the park district a “discounted hourly rate” of $325, records show.

LaVelle said the board members heard a presentation from outside counsel, but she told WBEZ that park district officials would not provide any further details of the meeting Friday.

A spokeswoman for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot – who has the power to appoint the park district’s top executive and board members – also declined to comment after the meeting.

But some elected officials had plenty to say about the matter. That included Lightfoot’s former City Council floor leader, Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward.

“Parents must be able to trust the park staff and leadership within the system,” Villegas said on Twitter on Friday. “Unfortunately the current park leadership and board have failed. They have to resign. Time for a fresh start.”

Other Council members who already had called for Kelly to step down included Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward; Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd Ward; Michele Smith, 43rd Ward; Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward; and Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th Ward.

In its statement, the Progressive Caucus cited the resignation this week of a supervisor at Humboldt Park after the 31-year-old veteran employee was accused of sexual misconduct against a 16-year-old female lifeguard. The supervisor was the fourth senior lifeguard to leave the park district after facing accusations of serious misconduct.

“The culture of abuse within the district is completely unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue,” the caucus said.

A spokeswoman for the caucus said at least 14 of the 18 Council members in the group had signed on to the statement, but she declined to name them.

Kelly has a four-year contract that was signed in December 2018 under Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel. The deal does not expire until the end of next year.

The contract details three ways that a majority of the board could force him out sooner. But those options could prove complicated or costly to taxpayers.

In a tweet this week, State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, also called for the removal of Kelly. On Friday, Cassidy added that she thought Kelly should not get any severance.

“I don’t want this guy to get a penny, but I want him gone even more,” she said. “The victims he neglected deserve so much more.”

Kelly did not respond to messages seeking comment Friday.

Friday’s anticlimactic board meeting came more than 20 months after Kelly received the first complaint from a teenaged female lifeguard who alleged “extreme abuse” at the city’s iconic Oak Street Beach in February 2020.

Kelly 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 referred the matter to the inspector general only after a second woman sent a separate complaint to Lightfoot.

The complainant 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.

Both of the initial whistleblowers told WBEZ in August that they were deeply disappointed by Lightfoot’s handling of the scandal and that they thought the mayor should fire Kelly.

At a news conference in August, Kelly said he would not resign and promised a quick resolution to the internal investigation into widespread sexual misconduct allegations in the park district’s Aquatics Department.

At the time, Kelly predicted he would bring reform quickly to the public beaches and pools, where former lifeguards told WBEZ they have suffered from a misogynistic and abusive workplace culture for decades.

But since then, pressure on Kelly has grown steadily, with the park district’s inspector general resigning last month after previously enjoying the vocal backing of Kelly and Lightfoot.

Meanwhile, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has opened her own criminal investigation. This week, Foxx took the rare and dramatic step of publicly asking victims of sexual violence at the park district to step forward and contact prosecutors on a new hotline to her office: (312) 603-1944.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.