The former Chicago parks leader blamed political pressure for her exit

In recordings from a closed-door meeting, former park district board president Avis Lavelle said she left to relieve pressure on Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Avis LaVelle
Former Chicago parks board president Avis LaVelle at a press conference in November 2021. Dan Mihalopoulos / WBEZ file photo
Avis LaVelle
Former Chicago parks board president Avis LaVelle at a press conference in November 2021. Dan Mihalopoulos / WBEZ file photo

The former Chicago parks leader blamed political pressure for her exit

In recordings from a closed-door meeting, former park district board president Avis Lavelle said she left to relieve pressure on Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

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When longtime City Hall insider Avis LaVelle announced her resignation as Chicago Park District board president last year, she said she was “deeply sorry for the culture of abuse and harassment that was allowed to fester” at public beaches and pools across the city.

“I take responsibility because it came to light on my watch,” LaVelle said at the end of a board meeting that was broadcast online in November.

But LaVelle had a very different message just minutes earlier — in a part of the parks board meeting when nobody was allowed access except for board members and top agency administrators.

“I am another head on a pike in the public square,” said LaVelle, who was a top aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

In private, LaVelle suggested that she was a scapegoat who had to take the fall for the mayor, describing herself as another victim of sorts in a scandal that included accusations of sexual harassment, abuse or assault against dozens of young, female lifeguards.

In a newly released video recording of the closed-door meeting last year, LaVelle told the other parks board commissioners that she initially planned to remain as president through the end of the year, but she decided to quit in early November instead — out of a desire to alleviate the pressure of the scandal for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

“I don’t think she wants me to be the albatross around her neck for another six weeks,” LaVelle said of Lightfoot. “Because they’re using me as a stick to beat her. And so, this has to end.”

LaVelle did not respond to multiple phone and email messages seeking comment for this story. Aides to the mayor declined to comment Tuesday.

But LaVelle’s impassioned statements in the freshly released recordings now provide new insight on a scandal that prompted effusive apologies from the mayor and other top officials and led to high-level resignations and firings at the park district headquarters.

The allegations from the lifeguards came into public view more than six months before LaVelle’s resignation, when WBEZ revealed an internal park district probe that had languished in secret for more than a year, despite widespread, serious allegations in the Aquatics Department.

The Cook County state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, opened up an investigation into the park district in August, and the agency’s inspector general and longtime chief executive soon resigned.

But LaVelle, who was a top spokeswoman for former Mayor Richard M. Daley, held onto her role as president of the parks board even after a report by an outside counsel blasted the park district’s handling of the matter.

LaVelle had been appointed to the board by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011, and he elevated her to president of the board in February 2019, shortly before Lightfoot was elected to succeed him.

LaVelle had every reason to believe nobody but top park district officials would ever hear her comments to them shortly before her public resignation announcement in November. The park district board had voted to keep that part of the meeting private.

But earlier this year, a resident of Chicago disputed the decision to close the meeting. LaVelle’s successor as parks board president acknowledged it indeed had been wrong to close the meeting and quietly released 27 minutes of previously concealed recordings from the Nov. 10 session.

LaVelle’s “mic drop” moment at her last board meeting

For much of that closed meeting, LaVelle defended her actions in the scandal staunchly, suggesting she had been unfairly criticized for a problem that plagued the workforce at the city’s public beaches and pools for generations. She said unspecified media coverage of the scandal had affected her personally and deeply — and caused her to leave when she did.

At the start of her remarks in the closed session, she said the reason she was “trying to just move out the door is because of the relentless, hostile media attention that I’ve been subjected to over the last several months.”

A few minutes later, she added: “It shook me to my core to be the focus of so much negative media attention and so much hostility. And everybody’s so mean right now, you know. It’s a whole lot of meanness, and it was very personal, and a lot of it still is.”

LaVelle did not say what media coverage she was referring to in those remarks and she did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment for this story.

But last fall, weeks before she left the park district board, she questioned whether it was fair for the WBEZ’s stories about the scandal to make mention of the clients of her private public-relations firm. LaVelle started the firm after leaving the Daley administration, and her clients have included the company that operates Chicago’s parking meter system under a controversial 2008 privatization deal and other private entities with lucrative interests at City Hall.

“As to your repeated references to clients for whom I currently or formerly worked, I don’t understand what any of that has to do with this [Chicago Park District] story?” LaVelle wrote in an email response to questions from WBEZ on Oct. 26.

Shortly before LaVelle resigned, WBEZ reported that she had attempted unsuccessfully to speak with Foxx on the day the station reported that the state’s attorney had been asked to open an investigation into the park district’s handling of the matter.

A spokeswoman for Foxx said Tuesday the prosecutors’ probe into accusations of public corruption in the park district’s handling of the scandal was ongoing.

In the closed-door session when she stepped down in November, LaVelle told fellow park district commissioners she was hoping to spare not only Lightfoot but also herself from continued media scrutiny. She expressed hope that the public pressure largely would dissipate before the holidays.

“I think to the extent that I stay here, that’s the longer it takes for it to subside,” LaVelle said. “It is my sincere hope that by the time I get to the end of the year, maybe some of this crazy will be over. I don’t think I want to do my holidays with this much craziness hanging around my head.”

LaVelle said she had not known about problems within the park district that emerged during the scandal.

“I want all of you to know that hindsight is 20/20,” she said. “I would certainly have done things better, and certainly have done things differently if I had had the benefit of knowing how dysfunctional and how inefficiently we were put together to be able to tackle this.”

LaVelle closed her remarks by predicting that the scandal would bring needed changes to the park district and declaring her tenure as president a resounding success worthy of a proverbial mic drop — although she acknowledged that some people did not see things that way.

“The people who know me know me, and the other people — they will think whatever they want to think and I could never dissuade them from that anyway,” she said, without naming any critics.

“I’m really OK now. I really am. So, thank you everybody. Let’s go out here. Let me drop the mic and go.”

“You are in no way culpable”

Some of the other parks board commissioners — who are appointed by the mayor with the approval of the City Council — expressed sympathy for LaVelle and bemoaned that the circumstances of the scandal precluded them from publicly praising her tenure with the park district, according to the video of the closed meeting.

The loudest support for LaVelle and strongest denunciation of her critics came from the park district board’s vice president at the time, Tim King.

He said LaVelle had done a “tremendous” and “unparalleled” job as parks board president.

“I know you are in no way culpable for any of the stuff that happened,” said King, who is the founder and CEO of the Urban Prep Academies, a charter-school network.

King also said only “some people who are ignorant and don’t understand” will think she was at fault for the lifeguard scandal.

King, who did not return messages seeking comment, did not say which critics he was referring to in his remarks at the November board meeting. He resigned from the parks board on Feb. 27, officials said.

Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, was among eight City Council members who had called for LaVelle’s resignation last year and he watched the newly released video of the parks board’s closed session in November.

“The only ignorant people I can see are those who tried to cover it up — and still tried to, even on the way out,” Waguespack said.

Park District officials have said they are instituting reforms to avoid a repeat of the scandal.

Waguespack said he was not yet convinced that would work.

“Some people have been fired, but it doesn’t mean the culture is going to change overnight,” he said. “You also need the leadership to send a message as well, that this can no longer be tolerated.”

When LaVelle left the park district, some board members said they hoped to privately throw a party to celebrate her tenure.

“We can certainly do something off-campus and Avis deserves nothing less,” Donald Edwards, a private-equity executive, said in the closed session. “We will do that because Avis does deserve to be celebrated.”

Another parks board member, Jose Muñoz, told LaVelle, “I feel horrible that after such a long tenure, all the hard work, everything that you’ve put into this part, that we can’t celebrate you the way you deserve to be celebrated … If there’s an opportunity to celebrate you outside of here, you know I’d be down for it.”

In an email to WBEZ, the secretary for the parks board said Tuesday that “no such gathering” for LaVelle ever occurred.

Edwards did not return messages and Muñoz, who leads the La Casa Norte social-service agency, declined to elaborate on his comments at the closed board meeting, writing in an email Tuesday that, “I haven’t been in contact with Ms. LaVelle since the board meeting you referenced. I don’t think I have anything to add.”

A Chicagoan fighting for government transparency

At the Nov. 10 meeting, the park district board went into closed session by citing an exemption to the state’s Open Meetings Act that allows public bodies to discuss personnel matters out of public view.

In the minutes from that meeting, park district officials said board members “discussed various personnel matters and the resignation of Avis LaVelle as Board President of the Chicago Park District … President LaVelle gave remarks on her tenure at the Chicago Park District and her hopes for the District moving forward.”

But in February, Edgar Pal — a Chicago resident who has been an activist for open public records and meetings in the city and suburbs — appealed the decision to the Illinois attorney general’s office. That office mediates transparency disputes between government officials and the public.

Pal argued that the park district had violated Illinois law, writing that “it was improper for the Board to discuss the resignation of its president, Avis LaVelle, in closed session.”

Pal wrote that the exemption to the open-meetings law cited by the park district allows the board to shut out the public “for the discussion of only specific employees, independent contractors, or volunteers.”

When confronted by the attorney general’s office, the park district agreed to release parts of the video from the meeting and posted that recording on its website.

“Upon review, we realized our mistake, and agree that the Board of Commissioners erred in discussing the subject matter,” the new board president at the park district, Myetie Hamilton, wrote in a letter to the attorney general’s office on April 8.

Pal contends that it was not enough for officials to release 27 minutes of the recording from the meeting, and he said the park district should make public the entire closed session.

Pal told WBEZ he has no connection to the lifeguard scandal or to the park district, besides being a patron of the city’s parks and recreation facilities.

“I’m just interested in transparency in general,” he said. “I want government to do its job.”

In a statement Tuesday, a spokeswoman for park district officials said it remains their position that they do not have to release any further videotape of the Nov. 10 meeting.

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