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Park District Supt. Kelly resigns after Lightfoot says he should be fired for cause

The mayor said she called for Michael Kelly’s firing at an emergency Chicago Park District Board meeting Friday, but the board took no action against the park district’s superintendent and CEO.

Michael Kelly, General Superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Parks District speaks at the ribbon cutting ceremony of the completion of the bridge replacement project at Irving Park Road in the North Center neighborhood, Friday morning, Sept. 10, 2021.
Michael Kelly, superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Parks District, speaks at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the completion of the bridge replacement project at Irving Park Road in the North Center neighborhood on Sept. 10.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times file

Chicago Park District Supt. Michael Kelly resigned Saturday night, hours after Mayor Lori Lightfoot called on the park district’s board of commissioners to fire him over his handling of allegations of sexual harassment and abuse involving park district lifeguards.

Kelly said he sent his resignation to park district board President Avis LaVelle Saturday night.

“It has been an honor to steward this extraordinary organization for the past ten years,” Kelly wrote in his letter. “It has also been an honor to serve Chicagoans as a public servant for the past 27 years. I have always had the best interests of our patrons and our employees at heart.”

Lightfoot said in a statement earlier Saturday that she urged the board during the closed-door meeting on Friday to remove Kelly from his position as head of the park district for cause.

“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,” Lightfoot said in a statement.

The emergency session was held so commissioners could hear evidence gathered by an outside law firm looking into the scandal and the questions raised about Kelly’s potential role in covering it up, the Sun-Times reported.

When the board reconvened after its closed-door meeting, it took no public action and adjourned without further comment.

Lightfoot previously said she would wait for the outcome of the investigation before deciding Kelly’s fate, even after a growing number of City Council members called for him to be removed.

Kelly, 50, has led the park district for a decade and has a contract through Dec. 31, 2022, at an annual salary of $230,000.

The Sun-Times reported Friday that Kelly’s golden parachute contract could have made it more difficult to fire him, while noting that his contact spells out “incompetence, negligence . . . or any act of misconduct that causes material harm to, and is contrary to the best interests of, the park district,” could be considered just cause for his termination. The park district previously said the contract had been terminated.

“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,” the board’s president told the Sun-Times.

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

The lifeguard said she’d been pushed into a wall, called profane and sexually degrading names by her coworkers and left alone for hours at her post because she refused to participate in their drinking parties and on-the-job drug use.

Instead of referring her allegations to the park district’s inspector general, Kelly had them investigated by top managers at the park district. Kelly delayed going to the inspector general until after a second lifeguard came forward with more graphic complaints that were passed to him from Lightfoot’s office.

Kelly has denied he tried to cover anything up.