Lightfoot says Park District’s ‘brand’ damaged by lifeguard scandal, hints board president’s days are numbered

“Avis LaVelle has given a lot of service to this city over decades stretching in different departments, different mayors and different opportunities where she has served,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday.

SHARE Lightfoot says Park District’s ‘brand’ damaged by lifeguard scandal, hints board president’s days are numbered
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a press conference about COVID-19 vaccinations for children aged five to 11 at Comer Children’s Hospital in the Hyde Park neighborhood, Friday morning, Nov. 5, 2021.

“My expectation is that [Avis LaVelle] will be making a decision relatively soon about what her future will be with the Park District,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot acknowledged Friday that the Chicago Park District’s “brand” has been “hurt” by the sexual harassment and abuse of lifeguards and hinted strongly that Park Board President Avis LaVelle may soon be history.

Under pressure from her closest City Council allies to dump LaVelle for what they call her negligent and “tone deaf” response to the lifeguard scandal, Lightfoot signaled that the housecleaning that swept out Park District Supt. Mike Kelly and three of his top aides may soon take down the board president.

“Avis LaVelle has given a lot of service to this city over decades stretching in different departments, different mayors and different opportunities where she has served,” the mayor said at an unrelated news conference.

“I know that this has been a very trying time for her personally, professionally and very difficult on her family. My expectation is that she will be making a decision relatively soon about what her future will be with the Park District. And I’m sure you’ll hear from her at that time.”

LaVelle could not be reached by phone or by email for comment.

Earlier this week, the Park 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 exposed a frat-house culture tolerated for decades.

On Friday, Lightfoot openly acknowledged that the high-level negligence has undermined the trust needed to persuade parents to send their children to Park District programs and their teenagers to work at beaches, pools and camps.

“We’ve got work to do. The brand of the Park District — no question whatsoever — has been hurt,” the mayor said.

“I want to make sure that there can never again be any question that every single Park District program … is run with the highest level of integrity and making sure that kids’ safety and learning and being in a nurturing environment is put front and center. We have an obligation to assure our parents that their kids are safe and will learn and thrive and have fun at the Park District. I send my daughter to the Park District. So, I’m speaking not just as a mayor but as a parent.”

Lightfoot said her own biggest takeaway from special counsel Valarie Hays’ report was that the brave young women who came forward with their stories of bullying, sexual harassment and abuse were “finally validated” — albeit too late.

“We cannot have a situation where young women, in particular, but any person in a workplace is talking about abuse, bullying and, God forbid, sexual abuse, sex assault and those concerns and complaints are not taken seriously. I’m very disappointed and distressed to see what has happened and unfolded in the lifeguard program,” she said.

Lightfoot said she’s given interim Supt. Rosa Escareno marching orders to put systems in place across the board in all Park District programs to “make sure that anything like this can never happen again.”

“This week’s announcements clearly show that the former general superintendent repeatedly lied and repeatedly lied publicly about what he knew, when he knew it and what actions that he had taken,” the mayor said

“We have to hold ourselves accountable because we’re dealing with children. … We’ve got to … make sure there are systems in place … and if anybody deviates from that that there is real swift accountability for it because we can’t tolerate anything less than that.”

A former City Hall reporter for WGN-AM Radio, LaVelle served as former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first press secretary before moving on to accept a top job in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration.

She now runs a media consulting company that has benefited from an array of government-related contracts.

LaVelle was appointed to the park board by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and has served as board president since March 2019.

Finance Committee Chair Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Ethics Board Chair Michele Smith (43rd) have said they don’t buy the claim LaVelle made this week that she had no choice but to trust the repeated assurances she got from Kelly that 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.

Smith has noted the Park District’s inspector general reports “directly to her and only to her. And therefore, she had to have known certain things were going on during and in the run-up to the investigation.”

“The first responsibility as a matter of good governance and lots of experience is to report your findings and do something. And nothing was done. Nothing was shared. That’s her responsibility.”

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