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Park board nominees on hot seat about lifeguard scandal

Aldermen demanded to know what mayoral nominees Myetie Hamilton and Modesto Valle intend to do to clean up the “culture” that, they believe, set the stage for sexual assault, sexual harassment, physical, verbal, drug and alcohol abuse among the district’s lifeguards.

The lakefront near 39th Street
The Lake Michigan shoreline, near 39th Street.
Sun-Times file

Two new appointees to the Chicago Park District board were put on notice Thursday: aldermen want them to clean up the ugly “culture” that allegedly set the stage for sexual assault, sexual harassment, physical, verbal, drug and alcohol abuse among the district’s lifeguards.

Myetie Hamilton and Modesto Valle were on the hot seat at a confirmation hearing before the City Council’s Committee on Special Events, Cultural Affairs and Recreation. Such hearings normally are love fests.

Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack pointed to the firing of Chicago Park District deputy inspector general Nathan Kipp, which Kipp has called a “concerted effort” to prevent him from “continuing to investigate criminal activity and employee misconduct that seemingly pervade” the Beaches & Pools Unit.

“That is direct retaliation, which is prohibited. And to see the board and the Park District supervisors not jump in and see that this is a problem when we have decades of this problem going on — it cannot be resolved overnight. It cannot be resolved by simply making a few changes. And it really puts any third-party report into the position of being suspect or undermining what the actual code says,” Waguespack said.

Waguespack noted the City Council is powerless to “remove anybody.” That puts the onus on the board.

“This affects men and women throughout the Park District. It’s been going on for decades. And the touches around the edge of trying to fix this issue are not gonna be done overnight. They’re not gonna be done by a third-party. It has to be done internally. And people need to be held accountable,” Waguespack said.

“I just hope you will take on this task for those of us who cannot take it on. For those victims who cannot take it on. Chicago needs to change that culture in the Park District. … Especially for those of us who have children [who] use the pools and for the employees that work there.”

When Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) opened the questioning about the lifeguard scandal, Committee chairman Nick Sposato (38th) said he didn’t “know how fair of a question” it was.

“If either one of you wants to answer that question or just take a pass, I’m fine with it. It’s something that didn’t happen under your watch. It’s an unfortunate thing that went on. The wheels are rolling to take care of the evil people that did whatever,” Sposato said.

Hamilton said she looks at the scandal as a woman and as the mother of teenage girls.

“I believe that the parks are a public trust and that we should lead through this with transparency. We should lead through this with integrity. And also with urgency around resolving it,” she said.

A former deputy network chief at Chicago Public Schools, Hamilton said it’s her understanding an investigation has been conducted by an “external party” and a report “will be made available.”

She was apparently referring to Park District Inspector General Elaine Little, who fired Kipp and whose investigation Kipp has branded highly suspect — in part, because she has made no effort to interview Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this month 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 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 — who worked for several years in the 2000s as a park district attorney — 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.

He has acknowledged second thoughts about how he handled the first woman’s complaint.

“I would be happy to join this board and to lean into this work to bring this to a resolution with the proper mitigations that are necessary so that this will never happen again,” Hamilton said.

Valle, who runs the Center on Halsted, said the park board has “an obligation” to create “safe environments — not only for the community, but also our employees,” he said.

“There is no room for sexual harassment. I take that very seriously. I take that very seriously in my workplace,” he said.