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Chicago Park District CEO Resigns Over Lifeguard Scandal

Paul Steinbach

Chicago Park District CEO and general superintendent Mike Kelly resigned Saturday, hours after mayor Lori Lightfoot called on the Park District Board to “immediately” fire him over his handling of a sex abuse scandal involving lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools.

As reported by CBS affiliate WBBM, Kelly had managed the Park District since 2011, when then-mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed him to his latest positions. He had been with the Park District since 2003, previously serving as chief operating officer, first deputy general counsel, and director of intergovernmental and community affairs.

Earlier Saturday, Lightfoot released a statement saying she had urged the Park District Board to fire Kelly at a closed-door meeting Friday based on Kelly’s handling of claims of systemic sexual harassment and abuse of women and girls who worked as lifeguards at the district’s beaches and pools.

“In that meeting, I urged the Board to remove from office the General Superintendent and CEO of the Park District, Mike Kelly, for cause,” Lightfoot said. “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 as new facts have come to light, is unacceptable. Despite prior claims of new training, new procedures and new personnel, the failings of the current Park District Administration’s response to new allegations of harm to a child persists and simply cannot be tolerated one day longer. Therefore, in my estimation, it is time for new leadership immediately.”

According to WBBM, Kelly’s resignation comes just weeks after Chicago Park District inspector general Elaine Little resigned amid an ongoing investigation into widespread sexual harassment targeting female lifeguards.

Two top managers — the district’s assistant director of beaches and pools, and the beaches and pools manager — both were placed on emergency suspension last month, based on information Kelly received from the inspector general. Both will remain on suspension until the inspector general’s investigation is completed.

Two additional employees were terminated and barred from future employment with the district, six resigned and were placed on the district’s “do not hire” list, nine were suspended, five remain on emergency suspension, and 18 received written reprimands.

Kelly has repeatedly defended his handling of the investigation, saying he’s committed to doing whatever is needed, even if that means going after criminal charges, WBBM reported.

“This abuse, this activity, this harassment — I face people every day in my personal life that I love and care about, that have gone through it. The people who need to know, know. I have looked them every day in the eye that they’ve gone through it. So I’m not going to rest. … I started this, I’m going to finish it,” Kelly said in August.

First disclosed by public radio station WBEZ, the inspector general's probe began in March 2020, when Kelly turned over a complaint he received from a former lifeguard, who described a toxic environment at Oak Street Beach. She accused fellow lifeguards of subjecting her and others to sexual harassment, as well as sexual and physical abuse. She also reported witnessing rampant drug and alcohol use by fellow lifeguards.

Kelly did not turn that letter over to the inspector general for six weeks after receiving it. He defended his decision by saying he first turned over the complaint to his management team.

“The Chicago Park District provides thousands of Chicago residents with high quality programming every single day. Families trust the Park District with their precious children. They have a right to expect that their children will be safe and protected,” Lightfoot said, as reported by WBBM. “Also, Park District employees deserve leadership who share their closely held values, namely, protecting our children against predators and bullies, and believing survivors of sexual abuse. Furthermore, in my administration, being a City or sister agency employee means you will have a safe workplace to show up to serve residents every day. As long as I am the Mayor of this city, survivors will be believed, abusers will be held accountable, and institutional culture will be changed to minimize any opportunity for harm to occur.”

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