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Looking for better judgment at the Chicago Park District

From its mishandling of a sexual abuse scandal to allowing Amazon lockers in public parks, it’s clear the park district needs a reset in its mission, and possibly in its leadership.

Park District Supt. Mike Kelly said at a City Hall news conference where he discussed the deal reached with union employees. Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The Chicago Park District should be our city’s proudest institution — a $480 million agency in charge of maintaining and programming an enviable collection of parks and green space, plus holding sway over the best public lakefront in the nation.

But lately, the park district seems intent on lousing up everything it has going for it, from its abysmal handling of a female lifeguard’s complaints of sexual harassment by Oak Street Beach lifeguards, to the agency’s nutty decision to allow Amazon to install huge retail lockers in city parks.

Add to these unforced errors a general slippage in parks maintenance and upkeep — in landmark Jackson Park, for instance — and patron-unfriendly moves such as surge pricing for parking on holidays.

Add, as well, a general unease that the district’s administration has seemed out of touch at times with the best interests of the average user of the district’s facilities. That’s been nagging at us for about the last five years, ever since the district’s top executives embraced a plan to create a championship golf course from two existing — and highly affordable — South Side courses without doing their homework to answer the most basic questions, such as whether the average duffer could ever afford to play there.

We believe the Chicago Park District needs a reset in its mission, and possibly in its leadership.

Lifeguard scandal

Case-in-point that change is needed has been Supt. Michael Kelly’s handling of the lifeguard scandal, which came to light largely due to WBEZ reporting.

A young woman lifeguard sent Kelly a letter in February 2020 that alleged physical abuse, sexual harassment and drug and alcohol use by Oak Street Beach lifeguards. But instead of launching an immediate investigation as he had promised the woman, Kelly allowed six weeks pass without doing much of anything — and apparently jumped into action only when Mayor Lori Lightfoot sent him a second person’s more graphic, complaint.

Kelly handed the second complaint to his inspector general, while allowing his management team to investigate the first complaint — and not the IG, as he had promised the young woman.

In a news conference earlier this year month, Kelly did not identify the managers he picked to look into the initial complaint. But before choosing his lieutenants for the task, this should’ve set off some bells and whistles: one of Kelly’s top managers is the father of a woman who is alleged to have participated in hazing at Oak Street Beach.

Kelly last week announced he has suspended two high-level park district employees and seven others as part of the probe.

“In hindsight, should I just have turned it over to the inspector general that day? Maybe I should have,” Kelly told WBBM-AM (780) reporter Craig Dellimore. “And it’s my word against whomever’s. But I gave it to my managers. The second letter came in, and I realized one is terrible. Two is too many.”

Sounds good. But, mysteriously and without explanation, Kelly also suspended Nathan Kipp, the deputy inspector general in charge of the crime investigation. Kipp issued a statement saying his suspension is an attempt to “whitewash” the investigation.

We don’t yet know if this is true. We also understand the park district is not free, for legal reasons, to publicly discuss personnel issues. But given how the park district has fumbled this entire matter, nobody should be quick to dismiss Kipp’s accusation.

Those Amazon boxes

Kelly and his team also are behind a wrongheaded deal to put more than 100 ungainly Amazon Hub lockers — some of which are 15 feet wide — in parks across the city.

The park district, which made the decision without any public or board input, likely will net a piddling $137,000 a year from the arrangement, Block Club Chicago reported Monday,

“Amazon should not be occupying public space regardless of what they offer,” Ald. Rossana Rodriguez (33rd), said Monday on Twitter. “But we have to note that 137K is a slap in the face.”

This is true.

“[Corporations] like Amazon that don’t pay taxes impact our ability to fund public services, like parks,” she wrote.

This also is true. And the park district was wrong to even entertain such a deal.

Looking for better judgment

Kelly has been a reasonably capable superintendent since Mayor Rahm Emanuel picked him for the $230,000 a year post in 2011. Under his leadership, the park district broke ground this summer on a new $65 million headquarters and community anchor in the Brighton Park neighborhood.

The choice to move the district from Streeterville to a working class South Side community is a good one.

But it’s time that the park district board and Lightfoot, who has defended Kelly, make it clear to the superintendent that they want him to run a tighter, cleaner ship from now on — or be prepared to walk the plank if he doesn’t.

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