Are More Changes Coming to the Chicago Park District in Wake of CEO’s Resignation?

Longtime Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly’s resignation Saturday amid criticism he’s mishandled a wide-ranging sexual abuse scandal could portend future changes at the city’s sister agency.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot had urged the park district’s board of commissioners to remove him for cause.

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“The culture of sexual abuse, harassment, and coercion that has become pervasive within the District’s Aquatics Department lifeguard program under his leadership, combined with the Superintendent’s lack of urgency or accountability,” Lightfoot said Friday in a statement.

While the board did not do so during a private meeting on Friday, Kelly on Saturday quit effective immediately.

“It has been an honor to steward this extraordinary organization for the past ten years. It has also been an honor to serve Chicagoans as a public servant for the past 27 years. I have always had the best interests of our patrons and our employees at heart,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

Friends of the Parks Director Juanita Irizarry said the organization is “glad to imagine a new diurnal under new leadership.”

“Friends of the Parks has long been concerned that the leadership of Mike Kelly did not bring an emphasis on equity across the park district and that in fact maybe he didn’t even understand what that term means,” she said. “We have seen a real lack of transparency on a lot of cases.”

Kelly was appointed to the post in 2011 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and was kept on under Lightfoot.

At an Aug. 16 press conference, Kelly said he would see the sexual abuse investigation through to the end, and that getting to the bottom of it was “top of mind” since he learned about it.

“No one is going to tolerate this – I cannot stress this enough – this abuse, this activity, this harassment,” Kelly said at the time. “I will continue to do everything in my power to root out the bad actors and the bad behavior. I understand the frustration with the time is has taken to look into these claims.”

Former park district deputy inspector general Nathan Kipp, who had been investigating the abuse, had been suspended by park district leadership just days prior.

In an Aug. 19 statement, Kipp said the park district and its commissioners “repeatedly and successful exerted improper influence” over the inspector general’s work.

While Kelly at the time said he hoped the investigation would be complete by mid-September, Kipp in the statement said the office of inspector general was “overwhelmed” with “only one full-time investigator” assigned to the wide-ranging case, and that Kelly and park district President Avis LaVelle ignored the inspector general’s office calls for additional personnel and resources.

Kipp declined to offer further comment on Monday.

Clauses in his contract that predated Lighfoot’s administration could have put taxpayers on the hook if Kelly was forced out.

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd Ward) said the relatively small amount of money was not enough to justify her not taking action, given delays of the probe into sexual harassment and abuse at park district beaches and pools.

She said the mayor should have called earlier for Kelly’s ousting.

“It’s incredible that after the mayor asked for his resignation it happened almost immediately. So this could have actually happened before,” she said. “It is outrageous that it didn’t. I think that there is enough evidence at this point that points to the fact that there has been a lot of misconduct, that there has been a lot of damage that has been done.”

The park district needs new leadership, Rodriquez-Sanchez said.

“We need to hold people accountable for what happened,” she said. “And we need to ensure that the Chicago Park District is an institution that has the public trust, that people can send their children too – to work in the summer, to do any sort of programming.”

Especially with high rates of violence, she said the park district is “essential” and its leaders need to be trustworthy.

Irizarry said Friends of the Parks leadership has not meet since the park district board on Friday declined to remove Kelly, and has not specifically discussed whether in light of that the commissioners should go.

“We have had a lot of conversation about the board of commissioners of the park district being really a rubberstamp board, one that just follows orders from above, or from below in the case of Mike Kelly. And that it is not accountable to the citizenry of the city,” Irizarry said. “We think this is a great opportunity to think about what changes need to be made both in the position and the construct of this board of commissioners.”

The park district has independent taxing authority, and is known as a sister agency to Chicago. The mayor appoints the CEO/superintendent, with confirmation from the board of commissioners.

Irizarry suggested potential changes could include moving to an elected board, mechanisms for greater City Council oversight over the park district, or having commissioners appointed for their parks and recreation expertise rather than their political connections and campaign contributions.

Board President LaValle is a consultant who served as a press secretary for Mayor Richard M. Daley and President Bill Clinton’s campaign.

A park district spokesman said Monday that LaVelle was not available for an interview; other commissioners likewise did not respond to a request through the district’s media office.

“In the coming days, the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners will move forward in consultation with Mayor Lori Lightfoot to appoint an interim CEO to give a heightened level of attention to the issues and concerns confronting the Chicago Park District. We consider this our highest priority,” LaValle said in a statement on Saturday in reference to Kelly’s resignation.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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