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Chicago Park District CEO Mike Kelly Resigns After Mayor Lori Lightfoot Said He Should Be Fired Over Handling Of Lifeguard Sex Abuse Scandal

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago Park District CEO and General Superintendent Mike Kelly resigned on Saturday, just hours after Mayor Lori Lightfoot called on the Park District Board to "immediately" fire him over his handling of a sex abuse scandal involving lifeguards at the city's beaches and pools.

Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons confirmed Kelly's resignation Saturday night.

Kelly had managed the Park District since 2011, when then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed him as General Superintendent and CEO. He had been with the Park District since 2003, previously serving as chief operating officer, first deputy general counsel, and director of intergovernmental and community affairs.

In a statement earlier Saturday, Lightfoot said she had urged the Park District Board to fire Kelly at a closed-door meeting Friday on Kelly's handling of claims of systemic sexual harassment and abuse of women and girls who worked as lifeguards at the district's beaches and pools.

"In that meeting, I urged the Board to remove from office the General Superintendent and CEO of the Park District, Mike Kelly, for cause," Lightfoot said. "The culture of sexual abuse, harassment, and coercion that has become pervasive within the District's Aquatics Department lifeguard program under his leadership, combined with the Superintendent's lack of urgency or accountability as new facts have come to light, is unacceptable. Despite prior claims of new training, new procedures, and new personnel, the failings of the current Park District Administration's response to new allegations of harm to a child persists and simply cannot be tolerated one day longer. Therefore, in my estimation, it is time for new leadership immediately."

In recent days, several Chicago aldermen had called for Kelly to resign for his handling of the scandal. On Friday, the 18-member Progressive Caucus demanded his resignation. Six members of that caucus had previously demanded his ouster in individual statements.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), the first member of the City Council to call for Kelly's resignation, tweeted on Saturday: "The tip of the iceberg breaking loose at Parks."

"Sexual abuse is endemic, it has to be fully removed," Waguespack wrote.

"Mayor Lightfoot holding Parks Supt Kelly accountable for his role in the sexual abuse and harassment scandal is an important step in changing the culture at the parks," he added. "The rest of the park district officials involved, at any level and in any park department, must also be held accountable if there is to be change in culture and the creation of a safe space for any and all afraid or victimized."

Kelly's resignation comes just weeks after Chicago Park District Inspector General Elaine Little resigned amid an ongoing investigation into widespread sexual harassment targeting female lifeguards.

Little's resignation came after WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio reported Little was herself under an investigation into "alleged conflicts and wrongdoing" upon leaving a post as director of investigations at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center three years ago.

In August, Kelly said the investigation by Little's office had resulted in disciplinary action against 42 employees since the probe into harassment among lifeguards began last March.

Two top managers, the district's assistant director of beaches and pools, and the beaches and pools manager, both were placed on emergency suspension last month, based on information Kelly received from the inspector general. Both will remain on suspension until the inspector general's investigation is completed.

Meantime, two other employees were terminated and barred from future employment with the district, six resigned and were placed on the district's "do not hire" list, nine were suspended, five remain on emergency suspension, and 18 received written reprimands.

Kelly has repeatedly defended his handling of the investigation, saying he's committed to doing whatever is needed, even if that means going after criminal charges.

"This abuse, this activity, this harassment – I face people every day in my personal life that I love and care about, that have gone through it. The people who need to know, know. I have look them every day in the eye that they've gone through it. So I'm not going to rest. … I started this, I'm going to finish it," Kelly said in August.

The inspector general's probe – first disclosed by WBEZ – began in March 2020, when Kelly turned over a complaint he received from a former lifeguard, who described a toxic environment at Oak Street Beach, accusing fellow lifeguards of subjecting her and others to sexual harassment, and sexual and physical abuse. She also reported witnessing rampant drug and alcohol use by fellow lifeguards.

Kelly did not turn that letter over to the inspector general until six weeks after he received it, and last month he defended his decision, saying he first turned over the complaint to his management team.

"The Chicago Park District provides thousands of Chicago residents with high quality programming every single day. Families trust the Park District with their precious children. They have a right to expect that their children will be safe and protected," Lightfoot said. "Also, Park District employees deserve leadership who share their closely held values, namely, protecting our children against predators and bullies, and believing survivors of sexual abuse. Furthermore, in my administration, being a City or sister agency employee means you will have a safe workplace to show up to serve residents every day. As long as I am the Mayor of this city, survivors will be believed, abusers will be held accountable, and institutional culture will be changed to minimize any opportunity for harm to occur."

Meantime, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx has opened a criminal investigation into the scandal, and has publicly asked for any victims of sexual abuse or assault at the Park District to come forward.

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