Park District Vows to Replace ‘Frat Boy Culture,’ Names City Hall Veteran as Interim Chief

(Chicago Park District)(Chicago Park District)

The ousted leader of the Chicago Park District will be replaced by a veteran of City Hall who comes with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s full-throated recommendation, officials announced Wednesday.

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Longtime Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly resigned Saturday after Lightfoot called on the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners to fire him after the agency had been buffeted with complaints that teen and young adult lifeguards had been abused at Chicago pools and beaches .

Kelly will be replaced on an interim basis by Rosa Escareño, who retired in July as commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection after 30 years with the city.

“Rosa is the right leader for this moment to bring confidence back into our Park District and to ensure it continues to provide crucial services to our community,” Lightfoot said in a statement.

Escareño oversaw the creation of the city’s Office of Labor Standards and worked closely with Lightfoot to help businesses struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A search for a permanent leader for the Park District is underway.

“I look forward to ushering in a new era of accountability in our parks system,” Lightfoot said.  

Representatives of the Park District and the mayor did not immediately respond to a question from WTTW News about how much Escareño will be paid as the interim superintendent of the Park District.

Lightfoot said Wednesday that she called for Kelly to be terminated after she got new information about the probe.

“It became clear it was time for new leadership,” Lightfoot said.

Escareño was approved unanimously Wednesday by the Park District Board of Commissioners, following a marathon 2-hour closed session.

Before welcoming Escareño as interim general superintendent, board president Avis LaVelle addressed the departure of former superintendent Mike Kelly and the issues that led to his resignation.

The board gave Kelly two options, according to LaVelle: resign or be fired for cause.

“We gave him the option to resign to make sure we could move on without protracted litigation and the related time, money and distraction from the important work ahead. We wanted him to resign, and we made that clear,” LaVelle said.

The board faulted Kelly for “deceit” and “failing to take critical steps to promote the zero tolerance standards that must replace this frat boy culture that has been allowed to flourish” within the Park District for too long, said LaVelle.

Though the Park District “turns a page” with Kelly’s resignation, that doesn’t mean the board of commissioners has closed the book on the sexual assault and harassment allegations aimed at employees in the aquatics division.

The board has hired independent counsel — someone “without the baggage of the internal culture, with allegiance only to the truth” — to continue investigating the allegations.

“We’re going to find out the whole truth, and we’re going to hold those involved accountable,” LaVelle said. 

WBEZ was the first to report the city had received dozens of complaints of sexual misconduct against lifeguards — some of them girls — going back decades.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

Patty Wetli contributed to this report.

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