Interim Park District CEO gets one-month extension day after saying she wants job permanently

The mayor’s laudatory comments appeared to signal support for Rosa Escareno. But when the Park District board emerged from a lengthy executive session, it announced her contract would be extended, but only through May 31.

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Rosa Escareño, Interim CEO of the Chicago Park District, speaks during a town hall meeting at Horner Park in March 2022.

Rosa Escareño, Interim CEO of the Chicago Park District, speaks during a town hall meeting at Horner Park in March.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The Chicago Park District Board on Wednesday granted Interim CEO Rosa Escareno a 30-day extension — until May 31 — one day after Escareno told the Sun-Times she would welcome the opportunity to be ousted CEO Mike Kelly’s permanent replacement.

Asked to respond on Tuesday to Escareno’s desire to keep the $230,000-a-year job, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had praised the interim CEO to the hilt.

The mayor said Escareno inherited a “very difficult set of circumstances” and demonstrated to Park District patrons and board members she is a “serious person” determined to restore public trust shattered by the lifeguard scandal at Chicago pools and beaches.

“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.

The mayor’s laudatory comments appeared to signal Escareno would be rewarded with the permanent job after already signing a pair of 90-day contracts.

But when the board emerged from a lengthy executive session, newly-appointed Board President Myetie Hamilton made a surprising announcement: Escareno’s contract would be extended, but only until May 31.

Escareno and Hamilton could not be reached for comment. Park District spokesperson Michelle Lemons had no immediate comment. Nor did the mayor’s office.

Kelly was forced to resign from his $230,000-a-year job last fall after an independent investigator concluded he 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.

When Lightfoot called and asked her to replace Kelly, Escareno agreed, despite just retiring from the grueling job of commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, where she helped businesses devastated by pandemic shutdowns and looting.

Escareno had said Tuesday she wants to finish what she started at the park district, even after a housecleaning swept out 16 people, including three of Kelly’s top aides.

The Park District also recently launched the “I am a Chicago Lifeguard” marketing campaign, highlighting a diverse group of employees, aiming to convince young people it’s safe to apply.

Though Escareno remains in limbo headed into the summer recreation season, the park board took another step Wednesday toward “turning the page,” as Escareno put it.

The board voted to create an “Office of Prevention and Accountability,” with an annual budget of $617,139. It will have five investigators tasked with preventing and investigating sexual assault and supporting victims.

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