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Parks board takes no action after hearing independent report on lifeguard scandal

Following an emergency meeting behind closed doors to hear the findings of an outside law firm, the Chicago Park District Board convened in open session and announced no action had been taken against Supt. Mike Kelly.

Chicago Park District General Superintendent and CEO Michael Kelly speaks about the disciplinary action taken against employees in the Beaches and Pools Unit during a press conference at the South Shore Beach House at 7059 South Shore Drive in South Shore, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021.
Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly is shown in August, when he announced disciplinary action taken against employees in the Beaches and Pools Unit amid a sexual abuse and harassment scandal. On Friday, the park district’s board of commissioners heard a report from an outside law firm on Kelly’s handling of the situation but made no action.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Chicago Park District board took no action Friday after hearing a report behind closed doors about Supt. Mike Kelly’s handling of a burgeoning scandal involving alleged sexual harassment and abuse of lifeguards at the city’s pools and beaches.

Friday’s emergency session had been called by the board to hear evidence gathered by an outside law firm into the scandal and Kelly’s potential role in covering it up. Walls appeared to be closing in for Kelly, but after three and a half hours behind closed doors, board members stopped short of saying what should happen next.

The board then adjourned without further comment. A spokesman for Mayor Lori Lightfoot had no comment when asked about the board’s lack of action.

Although five influential City Council members — joined Friday by the Council’s Progressive Caucus — have demanded Kelly’s ouster, Lightfoot has said repeatedly she would await the outcome of the investigation before deciding whether to retain Kelly.

The report, by former federal prosecutor Valarie Hays, was not made public.

Kelly, 50, was not visible during the virtual meeting as he normally is during board meetings. Kelly, a Rahm Emanuel holdover, has been at the helm of the park district for a decade and has a contract through Dec. 31, 2022, at an annual salary of $230,000.

People lay out, swim, and relax at Oak Street Beach Aug. 4, 2021. An Oak Street Beach lifeguard sent 11 pages of allegations to park district superintendent Mike Kelly about lifeguards’ conduct in 2019. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
People lay out, swim, and relax at Oak Street Beach Aug. 4, 2021. An Oak Street Beach lifeguard sent 11 pages of allegations to Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly about lifeguards’ conduct in 2019. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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 having top managers investigate those complaints instead of referring those allegations immediately to the Park District’s inspector general.

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

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.

No relation to Ed Kelly, a previous longtime parks superintendent, Mike Kelly was hired in 2003 as director of inter-governmental affairs from a job as an assistant to Mayor Richard M. Daley. Kelly quickly moved to the parks’ legal department as first deputy general counsel. In 2007, he rose to chief operating officer.

His salary rose from $180,000 a year in 2011 when he was named superintendent to $230,000 in 2020.

Chicago Park District Supt. Michael Kelly speaks about the disciplinary action taken against employees in the Beaches and Pools Unit during a press conference at the South Shore Beach House at 7059 South Shore Drive in South Shore, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. The Chicago Park District is under scrutiny after reported sexual misconduct and abuse.
Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly speaks in August about the disciplinary action taken against employees in the Beaches and Pools Unit during a press conference at the South Shore Beach House.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has launched her own investigation into whether the lifeguard scandal rises to the level of criminal charges.

Already, the Park District has disciplined 40 people.

The lifeguard scandal is hardly the only controversy on Kelly’s watch.

So is the fact that the parks district inspector general he hired, Elaine L. Little, was forced to resign after a controversy came to light regarding an affair she had with a co-worker at a previous job.

Little, ex-wife of State Rep. Curtis Tarver (D-Chicago) resigned just hours after a WBEZ investigation showed that while overseeing investigations at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, she had an extramarital affair and a child with a colleague. That triggered a conflict of interest probe cut short when she resigned in 2018.

In addition, Kelly has taken public heat for signing a contract with Amazon to install lockers in public parks and for 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 why the team has signed an agreement to purchase the 326-acre site of the now-shuttered Arlington International Racecourse for $197.2 million.

A sign along the Chicago lakefront near 39th Street. Park district superintendent Mike Kelly was fired Friday for allegedly mishandling the lifeguard scandal.
A sign along the Chicago lakefront near 39th Street. No action was taken Friday regarding Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly’s alleged mishandling the lifeguard scandal.
Sun-Times Media

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.

There also were new disclosures this week by the Sun-Times.

First, an adult male supervisor for the Chicago Park District abruptly resigned after being accused of an “inappropriate relationship” with an underage female employee who once worked as a seasonal lifeguard.

Then, the Sun-Times revealed that, despite public pronouncements to the contrary, Kelly and the board did not mutually agree to terminate his potentially costly golden parachute contract.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson and other city officials look on as Mike Kelly, CEO of the Chicago Park District, speaks during a press conference in Ellis Park May 23, 2019. Kelly was fired as Park District superintendent Friday for allegedly mishandling a lifeguard scandal. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson and other city officials look on as Mike Kelly, then-CEO of the Chicago Park District, speaks during a press conference in Ellis Park May 23, 2019. No action was taken by the Park District board Friday over Kelly’s allegedly mishandling a lifeguard scandal. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Two months ago, Kelly defended his decision to give his top managers the first opportunity to investigate the female lifeguard’s complaints, even though the Feb. 7, 2020 email “made my blood boil” because the behavior she described was abusive and “disgusting.”

“I asked my managers a reasonable question, which is, ‘Can you look into this? Do we have complaints? Are there other complaints? What’s going on, folks?’” Kelly told WBBM-AM (780) reporter Craig Dellimore.

“In hindsight, should I just have turned it over to the inspector general that day? Maybe I should have. ... 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.”

Kelly was asked on that day if he drew a distinction between the first complaint, which described physical abuse, sexual harassment and drug and alcohol use and the second woman’s letter, which alleged rampant sexual abuse and sexual violence.

“I’m not gonna slice the onion and say, ‘This was bad behavior. This was criminal behavior.’ It’s just all bad. I own it. I made that decision. And I still stand by it. I think it was the right decision,” said Kelly, whose staff reached out to Dellimore to tell his side of the story.

During that interview, Kelly insisted his first priority was “protecting children” who attend Park District camps and programs and the young men and women who work as lifeguards and that he will not rest until there is no abuse of any kind.

What about the young woman who was promised — by him — an immediate inspector general investigation that she didn’t get?

“My word was, I wasn’t gonna rest until this was rooted out and every bad actor was dealt with — whether it was suspension, termination or me sitting in a courtroom in Cook County in the front row supporting them as they prosecute these people. That was my commitment then. That was my commitment now,” Kelly said.