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Rosa Escareno signs a 90-day contract as interim CEO of Chicago Park District, but she’s open to staying longer

Escareno acknowledged a housecleaning and a culture change are needed in the Beaches and Pools Division, and she has carte blanche to do both.

Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno speaks during a press conference about Chicago’s reopening plans at Navy Pier, Thursday morning, April 29, 2021.
Rosa Escareno
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Rosa Escareno said Friday she has signed a 90-day contract to replace ousted Chicago Park District CEO Mike Kelly but cracked the door open to staying longer after a housecleaning dictated by the sexual harassment and abuse against lifeguards.

“Of course. Who wouldn’t love this job that does so many wonderful things for people?” Escareno said when asked whether she would consider staying on.

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

She answered the call, just as she has done so many times before when her experience, compassion 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 has to do with restoring public trust shattered by Kelly’s handling of the lifeguard scandal.

Escareno’s job is to convince Chicago parents it’s safe to send their children to Park District programs and safe to have their teenagers work as lifeguards at Chicago’s pools and beaches.

“Is there a culture that has continued to allow for this kind of behavior to exist? There is a problem in the thinking of individuals that work there. It is unconscionable and unacceptable to me as a public servant. … Why would anyone working with youth, who is an adult, believe that kind of behavior is appropriate?” Escareno said.

“It is disgusting. ... I will do everything in my power in these 90 days to address the issues that are identified through these investigations.”

Escareno acknowledged a housecleaning and a change in culture are needed in the Beaches and Pools Division, and she has carte blanche to do both.

She’s not waiting for a final report from Valarie Hays, the private attorney hired to investigate the scandal after Park District Inspector Elaine Little was forced out in the middle of her internal investigation.

She’s meeting with the entire supervisory staff within that division but has stopped short of demanding mass resignations, especially among the aquatics department.

“The residents of Chicago rely on many of these programs. I have to ensure that, as I move forward, that we are being methodical, that, as we make the changes necessary, that we are able to operate,” Escareno said.

She’ll be paid at the same rate as Kelly, who was forced out from his $230,000-a-year job two weeks ago for mishandling the lifeguard investigation. In a brief resignation letter he submitted on a Saturday night, he wrote, “I have always had the best interests of our patrons and our employees at heart.”

The Sun-Times reported in August that, in February 2020, an Oak Street Beach lifeguard sent 11 pages of 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 gave his top managers first crack at investigating those complaints instead of referring them immediately to the Park District’s inspector general. That’s what he promised the young woman he would do in an email applauding her for her courage in coming forward.

Though required by Park District rules, Kelly 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.

Before being suspended then fired, Deputy Inspector General Nathan Kipp was leading the lifeguard investigation.

Kipp has called his ouster a ”concerted effort” to prevent him from “continuing to investigate criminal activity and employee misconduct that seemingly pervade” the Beaches and Pools Unit.

On Friday, Escareno was asked whether Kipp’s firing in mid-investigation was appropriate or even legal.

“You raise some very important questions. This is not an area that is under my purview. I ask you to definitely ask those questions of the board and the board president. Those are not areas that fall under my purview at all,” she said.

Asked whether Kipp should have been fired, she said, “I don’t know the facts.”

The interim CEO also punted when asked what role the Chicago Park District board and its president, Avis LaVelle, played in Kipp’s firing and what responsibility the board bears for failing to conduct an adequate background check before Little was hired as inspector general.

Little is the ex-wife of state Rep. Curtis Tarver, D-Chicago. She resigned just hours after a WBEZ investigation showed that while overseeing investigations at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center she had an extramarital affair and a child with a colleague. That triggered a conflict of interest probe cut short when she resigned in 2018.

“In terms of the structure, the IG reports directly to the board president. That is not something that anyone in my role as an interim and certainly anyone previously should have been involved in onboarding, according to my understanding of the structure,” she said.

“I point you to ask those questions of the board.“

LaVelle could not be reached for comment. She has dodged repeated phone calls throughout the scandal, speaking only during board meetings.