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Embattled park district superintendent still has golden parachute contract — though district said it was terminated

Mike Kelly has held his $230,000-a-year job for the last decade. Some City Council members have demanded his ouster, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she’s waiting for results of the investigation into alleged sexual harassment and abuse of lifeguards.

Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly (right) during a press conference and groundbreaking ceremony in June for the AIDS Garden on the lakefront near Belmont Harbor. Behind him are Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (left) and Ald. Tom Tunney (center).
Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly (right) during a press conference and groundbreaking ceremony in June for the AIDS Garden on the lakefront near Belmont Harbor. Behind him are Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (left) and Ald. Tom Tunney (center).
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Despite public pronouncements to the contrary, embattled Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly still has a golden parachute contract through 2022, making it more difficult and costly to fire him.

The park district board will hold an emergency meeting at 2:30 p.m. Friday for a “closed session” that might include a vote of no-confidence in Kelly.

Though at least five members of the Chicago City Council have demanded Kelly’s ouster, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said repeatedly she will await the outcome of the investigation into alleged sexual harassment and abuse of park district lifeguards before deciding whether to fire Kelly. He’s held the job for a decade.

Kelly’s failure to do what his spokeswoman Michelle Lemons promised in February 2019 — to begin the process to terminate his contract by “mutual agreement” with the board — could explain why Lightfoot might be hesitating. Then, as now, the board is headed by Avis LaVelle.

Lemons did not respond to requests for comment.

In an email to the Sun-Times, LaVelle said Kelly’s contract was “initiated, negotiated and approved” by the board under the leadership of her predecessor as board president, Jesse Ruiz. “Not one board member felt it was undeserved,” she said.

“There was tremendous political uncertainty with so many mayoral candidates at that time and we wanted to make sure that there was stability in our park district leadership,” she wrote.

“We objected to the contract being characterized as a ‘golden parachute’ because it would fairly compensate Mike Kelly if he were terminated for political expediency but does not compensate him if he is fired for cause.”

LaVelle was asked why Kelly’s contract was never terminated, as Lemons told the Sun-Times it had been.

“There is no such thing as ‘tearing up the contract’ unless both parties agree to it. At that point, Mike Kelly had a contract. Dissolution of the contract would have had to be negotiated just as the contract had been,” she wrote.

“Not one board member moved to renegotiate an exit to the contract because we felt strongly that if Mike Kelly was dismissed for political reasons, he should be compensated as other agency heads at CPS, CHA, CTA etc. would be.”

In 2019, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Kelly’s contract was one of several that would saddle then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s successor with his appointees or force Chicago taxpayers to spend nearly $1 million to get rid of them.

The new mayor’s hands were tied by contracts for the heads of the parks, City Colleges, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Housing Authority that — if all four were let go early — would cost about $820,000 plus benefits to undo. Taxpayers would pay more for their replacements’ salaries.

Unlike the others, who signed contracts when they took over their agencies, Kelly had served as superintendent without an employment agreement since 2011.

If at least four board members were to vote to get rid of Kelly — as was required if he did nothing to merit termination — taxpayers would owe Kelly eight months of salary, plus health insurance for his family.

The contract locked in Kelly’s pay at $222,000 for 2019, increasing it to $230,000 in 2020 and staying at that level through Dec. 31, 2022.

Kelly would automatically be entitled to an additional year’s salary plus benefits if the board failed to give him four months’ notice that it wouldn’t renew his contract.

At the time, Ruiz said he offered Kelly a written deal like other agency heads to make sure Kelly wasn’t replaced “cavalierly” by a mere “political supporter” of the new mayor.

Mayoral candidates, including Lightfoot, were nearly universal in condemning Kelly’s contract.

Emanuel wasn’t happy, either. At the time, City Hall sources said the mayor was blindsided. His hand-picked park board didn’t clear the agreement with City Hall prior to approving it in December 2018 at the final meeting headed by Ruiz, who was about to leave the board to join the administration of Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker.

Making matters worse, a state law that took effect on Jan. 1, 2019 would have capped Kelly’s severance payout at 20 weeks of salary.

Under his contract, though, Kelly was guaranteed nearly twice that if he were terminated without cause.

Emanuel was notoriously reluctant to throw his allies and appointees under the bus. But sources said he was so angered by Kelly’s contract and the back-door way it was handled that he pressured the park district to trash the agreement.

“The contract issue was not handled well,” a top mayoral aide said at the time. “Mike realizes that and made the right decision to walk away from it.”

At the time, Lemons told the Sun-Times that the board and Kelly had “mutually decided to terminate” Kelly’s contract. That meant he would not receive any severance if he was replaced.

But a look at Kelly’s current personnel file shows the contract was never terminated nor modified in any way. The six-page version signed in December 2018 remains the only one in the file, effective to this day.

Cause for termination, as spelled out in the contract Kelly signed, could include “incompetence, negligence, cruelty, immorality, criminal activity, any recommendation by the Park District Inspector General, following a full investigation, for the reprimand or termination of the General Superintendent, or any act of misconduct that causes material harm to, and is contrary to the best interests of, the Park District.”

Now, in order to get rid of the superintendent she inherited, Lightfoot would either have to make a public case for his ouster — and be dragged through a hearing upon his request — or pay him handsomely to walk away quietly.

The Sun-Times reported in August that, in February 2020, an Oak Street Beach lifeguard sent 11 pages of explosive allegations to Kelly about lifeguards’ conduct during the summer of 2019.

She said she’d been pushed into a wall, called sexually degrading and profane names by fellow lifeguards and abandoned for hours at her post for refusing to take part in their drinking parties and on-the-job drug use.

Kelly has been under fire for giving his top managers first crack at investigating those complaints instead of referring those allegations immediately to the Park District’s inspector general.

That’s what he promised the young woman he would do in an email applauding the lifeguard for her “courage” in coming forward.

Though required by Park District rules, Kelly did not contact the inspector general until a second lifeguard’s more graphic complaint of more serious allegations was forwarded to him by Lightfoot’s office.

That’s even though he worked for several years as an attorney for the Park District.

Kelly has resisted repeated demands for his resignation. He has acknowledged second thoughts about how he handled the first woman’s complaint, but categorically denied any involvement in a cover-up.

Before being summarily suspended, then fired, then-Deputy Inspector General Nathan Kipp was leading the lifeguard investigation Kipp has called his ouster a “concerted effort” to prevent him from “continuing to investigate criminal activity and employee misconduct that seemingly pervade” the Beaches & Pools Unit.

The lifeguard scandal isn’t the only controversy on Kelly’s watch.

So is the contract he signed with Amazon to install lockers in public parks as well as his now-reversed decision to remove a life ring from Pratt Pier in Rogers Park — where swimming is off-limits — to prevent a repeat of the drowning that killed 19-year-old Miguel Cisneros.

The Chicago Bears have also accused Kelly of refusing to engage in good faith discussions on their year-long request to create a mecca for sports betting near Soldier Field.

The spurned request is yet another reason the team has signed an agreement to purchase the site of the now-shuttered Arlington International Racecourse.

Kelly has also been the biggest public champion behind a controversial plan to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses.

The merger gained momentum when former President Barack Obama chose Jackson Park for his presidential center. But the $30 million plan hit a fundraising snag, derailing Kelly’s plan to quickly begin construction.