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Avis LaVelle resigns as park board president under fire for handling of lifeguard scandal

The end came Wednesday at the Park District’s monthly board meeting. After an executive session to discuss “personnel matters,” LaVelle read a statement announcing her resignation and defending her handling of the scandal.

Chicago Park District Board President Avis LaVelle speaks to reporters, during a press conference providing an update to the ongoing investigations at the Chicago Parks District, at Jesse White Park, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.
Avis LaVelle, shown at a news conference last week, was appointed to the Park District board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and has served as board president since March 2019.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Chicago Park District Board President Avis LaVelle resigned Wednesday under pressure for what mayoral allies called her negligent and “tone deaf” response to the sexual harassment and abuse of lifeguards at the city’s pools and beaches.

Last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot acknowledged the Park District’s “brand” has been “hurt” by the burgeoning scandal that triggered the ouster of Park District CEO Mike Kelly and three of his top aides.

Hinting strongly that LaVelle’s days were numbered, Lightfoot at the time told reporters LaVelle had “given a lot of service to this city over decades,” but the lifeguard scandal has been a “very trying time for her personally, professionally and very difficult on her family.”

The end came Wednesday at the Park District’s monthly board meeting.

After a lengthy executive session Wednesday to discuss “personnel matters” that included her resignation, LaVelle read a statement defending her handling of the scandal.

Her voice breaking, LaVelle said she is “profoundly grateful” to Lightfoot for giving her the “freedom to make this choice for myself and by myself. ... I am not being forced out.”

LaVelle said she is “deeply sorry for the culture of abuse and harassment that was allowed to fester” in the beaches and pools division, adding, “It is apparent that this went on for many years, even decades” before she joined the board in 2012.

“I take responsibility because it came to light on my watch. My fellow board members are not to blame for this culture of abuse and should not be held responsible. I want to make that clear. My fellow commissioners were not aware of the investigation for many months,” she said.

“The Office of Inspector General reports only to the board president and all investigations are held confidential until they reach a conclusion. That is not the best protocol. But that is the protocol that I observed and I have recommended to the board that they form a committee to oversee IG investigations going forward from here.”

LaVelle said her “integrity” and “reputation” are “among the things I value most.” She said she would “do nothing in this role or any position to put that at risk.”

“I fully supported a thorough investigation — one that followed the facts to reveal what happened, who was responsible for this abusive behavior, and who tried to cover it up instead of addressing it,” she said.

“While the facts may not matter to everyone, I am confident that the facts to date and those yet to be disclosed will show that I acted honestly and responsibly here, as I have throughout my entire ... career,” she said.

“If you know me, then you know. And you know that’s how I have lived my life publicly and privately.”

A Park Board member, who asked to remain anonymous, said LaVelle had no choice but to resign for, “at minimum, not informing the rest of the board” about the lifeguard scandal.

“Keeping the board in the dark. It’s not a good practice. You’re the board chair. We’re counting on the board chair to be the point person to keep the rest of the board informed. Raise up issues that are happening within the Park District — especially something like this,” the board member said.

“At minimum, she did not provide us with the information we needed to make decisions. ... At worst, [she is guilty of] helping Mike [Kelly] hide this information.”

Either way, there is no chance the Park District could make the reforms that need to be made with LaVelle at the top, the board member said.

“It’s not about selling a message. It’s that a lot of mistakes were made. And one of ’em is, again, you don’t hold onto information this sensitive, this big of a deal for 13 months. That’ s just not OK for any person on our board to have information like this and sit on it. Even if there was work happening, the rest of the board should have known. We’re all accountable for this. To withhold that information — it’s not OK.”

Last week, the district fired three top executives — and apologized to female lifeguards for dropping the ball on their complaints of sexual harassment and abuse — after a blistering report that exposed a frat-house culture tolerated for decades.

But the press conference LaVelle and interim Park District CEO Rosa Escareno held to announce the firings was a public relations disaster that did nothing to restore the public trust needed to persuade parents to send their younger children to district programs and allow their teenagers to work at beaches pools and camps.

LaVelle was hounded that day by questions of what she knew and when she knew it.

She was asked why she trusted Kelly’s repeated assurances he was taking action to clean up the burgeoning scandal when it turns out he was sitting on those complaints not for six weeks, as previously reported, but for six months.

“I operated based on what I was told was happening,” LaVelle said.

Noting that board members are not Park District employees, she said: “We don’t have visibility into the day-to-day operations. … You know what you are told. It’s a trust factor. … You have to be able to trust the administrator to tell you what is going on.”

When a television reporter told LaVelle her response sounded like she was “passing the buck,” she finally acknowledged her share of the blame.

“It is not acceptable that any of this continued to happen. It is not acceptable that this started long before any of us that I’m aware of were here. It’s all unacceptable. I accept my responsibility as a person who was sitting in this chair at the time that this was exposed. I can’t be responsible for the people who came before me,” she said.

“There are many factors. Some of this rests with the management of the Park District that did not tell us the truth.”

Two of Lightfoot’s closest City Council allies — Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Ethics Chair Michele Smith (43rd) — said they didn’t buy LaVelle’s claim she relied on Kelly to tell her the truth about the steps he was taking to respond to complaints from two young women who were victims of the abuse.

On Wednesday, Waguespack called LaVelle’s resignation “a step forward towards accountability that everyone wants to see.”

“She did not acknowledge early on that this was as serious of a problem as we know it to be. When you’re in that position and you’ve seen the information that she saw, there needed to be a greater and quicker effort undertaken,” Waguespack said.

“Obviously, Mike Kelly was not being forthcoming. But at the same time, they were sharing a lot of information and she had direct access to the IG. So I think she knew a lot more about it than was let on early on. That’s really the issue here. Having knowledge, but not getting justice for these women.”

A former City Hall reporter for radio stations WJJD and WGN, LaVelle served as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first press secretary before taking a top job in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration. She now runs a media consulting company with an array of government-related contracts.

LaVelle, appointed to the park board by Emanuel in 2012, has been president since March 2019. Her term was to expire in 2023.

Sources close to LaVelle said she initially hoped to ride out the storm, salvage her reputation and stay on as board president at least long enough to honor Park District commitments that helped pave the way for former President Barack Obama to choose Jackson Park as the site of his presidential center.

Lightfoot appeared to give LaVelle that opportunity by allowing her to join Escareno at last week’s news conference.

But the hostile questioning made it increasingly “obvious” public trust would be tough to restore as long as she remained on the board, the sources said.

“When you’ve got people calling for you to resign, she realizes she’s the chairman of the board and has to accept this reality. She doesn’t want to be a distraction,” a LaVelle ally said.

Noting that LaVelle is in the business of advising her clients how to handle themselves in the media, the source said, “She has to make a living. This isn’t helpful.”

In what would be her last board meeting as president, LaVelle played an active role in board discussions on a variety of subjects.

When complaints were raised during the public comment section about the security of concerts in the parks, LaVelle referred to the weekend concert stampede in Houston that killed eight people, including best friends from Naperville.

“Not that we want to prohibit concerts or anything on that order. But the situation in Houston has probably raised for all of us some concerns to make sure that were are doing everything that we need to do to be focused on safety,” she said.

“I cannot tell you the fate of any particular park or any particular festival in a park. I can only tell you that I am certain that we will be looking closely at what is done in every festival to make sure that every I is dotted and every T is crossed.”

LaVelle also flexed her oversight muscle before the board approved a $4 million change order for the $64 million contract to build a new Park District headquarters in Brighton Park.

She told the board that she and fellow member Jose Munoz “pushed back hard” on the “notion of a $4 million change order” during a private briefing on the environmental clean-up that triggered the increase.

“That is a very large amount of money. And we wanted to be able to assure people who were paying attention to this that this was not a way for somebody to come in and low-ball a bid and then raise the amount of money they’re asking for in a change order,” she said.