Interim Park District Supt. Rosa Escareno says she would welcome chance to be permanent replacement for ousted boss Mike Kelly

The Chicago Park District board is scheduled to hold its regular monthly meeting on Wednesday. That’s when a decision could be made about Escareno’s future heading into the all-important summer recreation season.

SHARE Interim Park District Supt. Rosa Escareno says she would welcome chance to be permanent replacement for ousted boss Mike Kelly
Rosa Escareño, Interim CEO of the Chicago Park District, speaks to a group of community members and reporters, during a town hall meeting at Horner Park’s field house, where Escareño gave a presentation on the new Office of Prevention and Accountability, Monday, March 21, 2022.

Rosa Escareño said Tuesday she’s open to becoming the next superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Park District.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

After signing a pair of 90-day extensions, Rosa Escareno said Tuesday she would welcome the opportunity to be the permanent replacement for ousted Chicago Park District CEO Mike Kelly.

The Chicago Park District board is scheduled to hold its regular monthly meeting on Wednesday. That’s when a decision could be made about Escareno’s future heading into the all-important summer recreation season.

With her second extension due to expire on April 30, Escareno refused to say what, if any, personnel action would be taken or whether the word “interim” would be removed from her title.

She would only say that, after six months on the job, she’s found yet another calling in her long record of public service and would be “honored” if the board asked her to stay.

“This has been such a joyous and really a wonderful opportunity to be able to continue to be in public service and in a way that I never imagined. In a way that really touches on the things that take me back to my childhood in the park programming,” Escareno told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday.

“Coming out of COVID, I really think the parks have been a refuge and a place of healing and calm. I have found this very unique opportunity to add a little bit of additional help and support — especially at a time of need because we are at a pivotal moment at the Park District. Not just coming out of the pandemic, but also the challenging situation with the issues of misconduct.”

Newly elected Park Board President Myetie Hamilton could not be reached for comment.

Hamilton replaced Avis LaVelle, who resigned in November under pressure for what mayoral allies called her negligent, “tone deaf” response to the sexual harassment and abuse of lifeguards at the city’s pools and beaches.

“I would be honored if anybody would want me to stay. But again, that is not a decision that is mine to make. … And I don’t pretend to be the only person who can do this job,” Escareno said.

Asked about Escareno taking the job permanently, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, “Anything’s possible.”

The mayor said Escareno has done a “tremendous job” in demonstrating to Park District patrons and board members that she is a “serious person” who inherited a “very difficult set of circumstances .”

“She’s done a yeoman’s job in starting the process of righting the ship. ... The fact that the Park District isn’t in the news on a daily basis — as it was not that long ago — is a great testament to Rosa and her team,” Lightfoot said at an unrelated event.

Under Escareno’s direction, the Park District recently launched a new marketing campaign — highlighting a diverse group of lifeguards under the title, “I am a Chicago Lifeguard” — aimed at convincing young people that it’s safe to apply for the job.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the board will take another step toward “turning the page,” as Escareno put it.

There will be a final vote to create a $617,139-a-year “Office of Prevention and Accountability” with five investigators tasked with preventing and investigating sexual assault and supporting victims.

“I already feel very proud of the work that we’ve done. The engagement. The number of young people that have come forward to give us information and input. And even individuals that have faced challenges that have come into our open town halls and in roundtable discussions with our staff,” Escareno said.

“We’ve gotten so much important information, just in these past six months, that are not only informing the Office of Prevention and Accountability but really start to frame a lot of the policies and processes that we need to revisit as this organization moves forward.”

Escareno had recently retired as Chicago’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection commissioner and was decompressing and training for a marathon when Mayor Lori Lightfoot called and asked her to replace Kelly.

Kelly was forced to resign from his $230,000-a-year job last fall after an independent investigator concluded the then-CEO sat on a teenage lifeguard’s detailed, heartbreaking complaint of abuse and harassment for six weeks before sending it up the chain and then only after a second lifeguard sent a more damning complaint to the mayor’s office.

Escareno answered the call, just as she has done so many times before when her experience, heart and coalition-building skills were needed to solve a crisis or assist Chicago businesses after the pandemic and two rounds of looting.

This time, the crisis had to do with restoring public trust shattered by Kelly’s handling of the lifeguard scandal. That’s a job that, Escareno said Tuesday, she wants to finish, even after a housecleaning that swept out 16 people, including three of Kelly’s top aides.


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