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Why Lightfoot backed Park District CEO Kelly despite scandal – Crain’s Chicago Business

It’s been obvious for months to City Hall insiders that Mike Kelly’s days were numbered as head of the Chicago Park District.

Amid a spiraling sexual harassment scandal in the district’s swimming lifeguard unit, Kelly in August forced out two top managers and disciplined dozens of other staffers. In September the district’s inspector general resigned, caught in her own scandal. This last week, another parks supervisor resigned after reports he was having an inappropriate relationship with an underage female lifeguard.

So what took Mayor Lori LIghtfoot so long to finally give Kelly the boot, as she did this weekend? The answer reveals something about this mayor’s management style, and about Kelly’s skills, and lack thereof. It also underlines the reality that, right now, City Hall’s bandwidth is limited, with one crisis seemingly following after another.

Kelly’s final downfall came quickly, when after a special meeting of the Chicago Park District Board on Friday that Kelly failed to attend, Lightfoot called for his “immediate” resignation.

The Kelly crisis first really broke into the public when, after a series of reports by WBEZ about alleged harassment, Kelly on Aug. 16 announced in a brief press conference that two top pool and beach officials had been suspended pending a fuller investigation by the district’s inspector general.

Kelly took advantage of the occasion to announce that 42 others had disciplined, including some discharges. Most, however, were actions taken for reasons not related to the harassment probe, a point lost in much of the media coverage. Still, even though it appeared Kelly had been slow to deal with allegations of harassment, the press announcement bought the superintendent some time. Lightfoot, meanwhile, had other fires to put out, including trying to counter the summer crime wave, working to craft her post-pandemic city budget, and kick-starting the process of finding a new head for Chicago Public Schools.

Kelly was also able to rely on popularity among aldermen, who until recently have generally held off on criticizing him. And in general terms, with watchdog groups such as the Civic Federation generally approving of his ability to craft balanced budgets, Kelly was able to rely on a reputation of being a fairly solid manager.

Then in September, district IG Elaine Little resigned after another WBEZ report she herself was under probe for alleged misconduct while in an earlier job with Cook County. That further complicated events, with Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, repeatedly insisting in public that she wanted to act like a good prosecutor and wait for the IG’s office to complete its probe before deciding on Kelly’s fate. In reality, “things were getting more and more tense,” says one City Hall insider.

Somewhere in the middle of that back-and-forth, Lightfoot learned Kelly had been out of town during this summer’s Lollapalooza in Grant Park, an all-hands-on-deck moment that was the first major public event here held in more than a year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The proverbial final straw came early last week, amid another round of media reports about the conduct of another district official, this time at Humboldt Park. District brass reportedly first heard of the alleged harassment on Aug. 26. The official resigned on Sept. 4.

That incident broke the logjam, with the City Council’s progressive caucus on Friday calling for Kelly’s dismissal, Lightfoot attending the emergency board meeting, and then the mayor finally calling for Kelly to go.

“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 come to light, is unacceptable,” Lightfoot said in a statement.  The district’s policies “simply cannot be tolerated one day longer,” she added,

Still, the question will continue to be asked: What took so long?

There’s no immediate word on a replacement.

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