Lightfoot dodges questions about parks boss’ future after allegations he delayed acting on lifeguard misconduct

SHARE Lightfoot dodges questions about parks boss’ future after allegations he delayed acting on lifeguard misconduct
Oak Street Beach on Aug. 4, 2021.

Allegations of sexual harassment, hazing and drug use among lifeguards at Oak Street Beach were not acted on immediately by Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly, the Sun-Times has learned. On Thursday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot would not comment on Kelly’s future.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday refused to say whether Park District Supt. Mike Kelly should keep his job after waiting six weeks to launch an investigation into a female lifeguard’s complaint of sexual harassment and physical abuse — breaking his promise to her and, potentially, violating park district rules.

At an unrelated news conference, Lightfoot was asked repeatedly if Kelly should be disciplined or fired for promising a young woman he would immediately investigate her complaints of rampant abuse at Oak Street Beach but then waiting six weeks to do so. He did not act until after a second complaint alleging sexual assault was forwarded to him by the mayor’s office, the Sun-Times has learned.

Her reply implied the problem already was solved:

“The park district earlier this year took a number of steps to address the issue in that particular program” such as renewed training and “getting rid of people that were problematic,” Lightfoot said. “So I feel like they’ve taken the steps that are necessary. But we can never rest on issues like this.”

Pressed again about whether waiting 41 days was her idea of an immediate investigation, Lightfoot reverted to now-familiar talking points about the lifeguard scandal that has been brewing at the Park District for months, with allegations going back for years and involving, for now, 15 women.

“As I said before, any time there’s an allegation that a child has been violated in any way, everyone has to be immediately focused, taking it seriously, investigating it and making sure that that child is taken out of harm’s way, period,” Lightfoot said, sounding as if she were trying to straddle the line between a concerned parent and a mayor defending the park district boss she inherited and decided to keep.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that in February 2020, an Oak Street Beach lifeguard sent 11 pages of explosive allegations to Kelly, detailing a frat-house environment at the beach 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.

“I take your assertions very seriously,” Kelly responded, assuring the young woman he was forwarding the complaint to Elaine Little, the park district’s inspector general. “Thank you for your courage and call for change.”

But he didn’t forward the complaint, the Sun-Times has learned, for about six weeks — not until after a second woman wrote her own letter to Lightfoot, who forwarded it to Kelly.

That delay runs contrary to Park District rules, which require alleged wrongdoing be reported immediately to the inspector general. The Park District’s sexual harassment policy also mandates allegations be reported “as soon as possible,” or within five business days, to human resources.

Park District Board President Avis LaVelle has not returned repeated phone calls seeking comment. Vice President Tim King did not respond to messages left by telephone and on his Urban Prep Academies email account.

Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons declined to answer specific questions or to make Kelly available for an interview. Kelly has not responded to emails seeking comment.

Instead, Lemons has referred to a letter Kelly wrote on June 23. The letter, posted on the Park District website, claims “immediate action” was taken about unspecified allegations of misconduct by lifeguards. In it, Kelly also assures the public that employees accused of misconduct who are still under investigation by Little’s office have been placed on emergency suspension. and others were fired.

Appointed to his post in 2011 by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Kelly remains in his $230,000-a-year job.

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