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Rahm’s agency heads could outlast him thanks to golden parachute contracts

Michael P. Kelly (left), seen in 2015 with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has headed Chicago's parks since 2011

Michael P. Kelly (left), seen in 2015 with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has headed Chicago's parks since 2011. | Sun-Times files

Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral reign ends in May, but thanks to contracts he’s extended to many key agency heads, whoever replaces Emanuel will be stuck with them for years to come — or pay handsomely for the privilege of making new appointments.

A clean sweep of the heads of the Chicago Park District, City Colleges of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Housing Authority would cost taxpayers at least $820,000 in golden parachute salaries — and more for benefits — in addition to the salaries for the new appointees. That’s according to an analysis of those contracts by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Michael P. Kelly has run the Chicago Park District since 2011. He was among the first agency heads appointed by Emanuel. Kelly didn’t have a contract, though, until December — and it lasts until at least Dec. 31, 2022.

Kelly’s deal appears to be the most egregious example of Emanuel sticking his successor with a long-term deal. It was done just after Emanuel chose political retirement over a likely battle for a third term. And Kelly’s contract was approved at the final parks board meeting of Jesse Ruiz, the board president who then left to join Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration.

Emanuel has long been the number one cheerleader for the $500 million Obama Presidential Center. But while he won’t be at City Hall to see that controversial project through, Kelly would continue to oversee a controversial golf course merger tied to the Obama center project.

Kelly’s contract could extend into 2025; Ruiz could not recall the last time a Park District superintendent had a written contract. Ruiz said he offered Kelly a written deal like other agency heads to make sure Kelly wasn’t replaced “cavalierly” by a mere “political supporter” of the new mayor.

“We think they’re doing a good job, and just like certain board members that go beyond the mayor’s term — like my former term would have extended into 2020 — we wanted to make sure that management team had stability,” Ruiz said.

That’s not just for the top two parks projects, Ruiz said.

Plans to build the four-building library complex still face a federal lawsuit and a federal review tied to Jackson Park’s spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The lawsuit in particular has the potential to circumvent the project. A judge is expected to rule Tuesday on whether to let the lawsuit proceed.

Kelly has also been the driving force behind the controversial plan — one lacking both money and support — to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a championship-caliber course. It would be designed by a firm owned by Tiger Woods.

If at least four board members vote to get rid of Kelly — as his contract requires, if he’s done nothing wrong — taxpayers would owe Kelly eight months of his salary, plus health insurance for his family; currently, he makes $222,003 a year, but that would rise to $230,000 in 2020.

Ruiz called the payout “an additional decision point in any new mayor’s calculus … an incentive to make sure you don’t just cavalierly make changes — that’s the whole point of the contract.”

That means if the new mayor immediately did what any new mayor would do — install his or her own team of trusted advisers and campaign supporters in key positions — Chicago taxpayers would foot the bill.

Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons would not make Kelly available for an interview.

The top leaders at the agencies typically work under contract, and Kelly’s buyback clause is hardly the most generous among them:

• City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado would be entitled to a full year’s salary of at least $256,250, plus health insurance for himself and his family for the duration of the contract ending June 30, 2020 — until he finds a new job with similar benefits.

• Also guaranteed a full year’s pay — $291,500 — is Chicago Housing Authority CEO Eugene Jones Jr., who’d also get six months’ health insurance for himself and his family, if he’s fired without cause. Jones’ contract lasts until Dec. 31, 2020.

• Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson is entitled to six months’ pay on her $260,000-a-year salary if she’s terminated without cause, plus six months of health insurance for herself and her family.

Janice Jackson and Rahm Emanuel

CPS Chief Janice Jackson is among city agency heads who have contracts that extend beyond the end of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s term. | Sun-Times files

The Chicago Transit Authority’s CEO Dorval Carter has no contract. Neither does Carina Sanchez, head of the Public Building Commission, or Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson.

The CHA’s Jones also negotiated a 2018 performance bonus of up to $35,000, according to the amended two-year contract Jones signed in July 2018, a little more than a month before Emanuel dropped the bombshell that he wouldn’t run again. That same deal awarded Jones a raise from the $275,000 a year he was paid in 2016, when he was made head of the city’s public housing. If board members want him to go, they must give two months’ warning.

The CHA also gave him a car, a parking space — and four weeks of vacation.

CPS’ Jackson locked in a 3.5-year contract through June 2021; like Kelly’s deal, Jackson’s automatically extends if the school board misses a deadline to tell her they don’t plan to renew. Jackson’s extension would be for one year (Kelly’s is for three).

She signed her contract Feb. 6, 2018, about two weeks after the school board approved her promotion, which includes a driver.

Candidates vying to replace Emanuel are divided on whether to keep his fifth schools chief — the first CPS graduate and teacher to lead the district — in place.

Jackson’s contract reads much like those of Emanuel’s first and second school chiefs, Jean-Claude Brizard and Barbara Byrd-Bennett, except she didn’t need moving expenses.

Her immediate predecessor, Forrest Claypool, forced out of CPS after an ethics scandal, had no contract while he headed the schools at the behest of Emanuel, a longtime friend. Neither did Ruiz, who rant CPS for three months after Byrd-Bennett stepped down amid a criminal probe that landed her in federal prison.

Within weeks of being announced as Emanuel’s choice, City Colleges’ Salgado signed a three-year contract that includes a $1,000-a-month car allowance.