Avis LaVelle resigns as park board president under fire for handling of lifeguard scandalFran Spielmanon November 10, 2021 at 9:25 pm

Avis LaVelle, shown at a news conference last week, was appointed to the Park District board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and has served as board president since March 2019. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The end came Wednesday at the Park District’s monthly board meeting. After an executive session to discuss “personnel matters,” LaVelle read a statement announcing her resignation and defending her handling of the scandal.

Chicago Park District Board President Avis LaVelle resigned Wednesday under pressure for what mayoral allies called her negligent and “tone deaf” response to the sexual harassment and abuse of lifeguards at the city’s pools and beaches.

Last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot acknowledged the Park District’s “brand” has been “hurt” by the burgeoning scandal that already has triggered the ouster of Park District CEO Mike Kelly and three of his top aides.

Hinting strongly that LaVelle’s days were numbered, Lightfoot at the time told reporters LaVelle had “given a lot of service to this city over decades,” but the lifeguard scandal has been a “very trying time for her personally, professionally and very difficult on her family.”

The mayor said then LaVelle would decide “relatively soon” about her future with the Park District, even though former Mayor Rahm Emanuel reappointed her to a term that expires in 2023.

The end came Wednesday at the Park District’s monthly board meeting. LaVelle is expected to be replaced by vice-chairman Tim King, founder and CEO or Urban Prep Academies.

A Park Board member, who asked to remain anonymous, said LaVelle had no choice but to resign for, “at minimum, not informing the rest of the board” about the lifeguard scandal.

“Keeping the board in the dark. It’s not a good practice. You’re the board chair. We’re counting on the board chair to be the point person to keep the rest of the board informed. Raise up issues that are happening within the Park District — especially something like this,” the board member said.

“At minimum, she did not provide us with the information we needed to make decisions. … At worst, [she is guilty of] helping Mike [Kelly] hide this information.”

Either way, there is no chance the Park District could make the reforms that need to be made with LaVelle at the top, the board member said.

“It’s not about selling a message. It’s that a lot of mistakes were made. And one of ’em is, again, you don’t hold onto information this sensitive, this big of a deal for 13 months. That’ s just not OK for any person on our board to have information like this and sit on it. Even if there was work happening, the rest of the board should have known. We’re all accountable for this. To withhold that information — it’s not OK.”

After an executive session Wednesday to discuss “personnel matters” that included her resignation, LaVelle read a statement defending her handling of the scandal.

Last week, the Chicago Park District fired three top executives — and apologized to female lifeguard for dropping the ball on their complaints of sexual harassment and abuse — after a blistering report that exposed a frat-house culture tolerated for decades.

But the press conference LaVelle and interim Park District CEO Rosa Escareno held to announce the firings was a public relations disaster that did nothing to restore the public trust needed to persuade parents to send their younger children to Park District programs and allow their teenagers to work at beaches pools and camps.

LaVelle was hounded that day by questions of what she knew and when she knew it.

She was asked why she trusted Kelly’s repeated assurances he was taking action to clean up the burgeoning scandal when it turns out he was sitting on those complaints not for six weeks, as previously reported, but for six months.

“I operated based on what I was told was happening,” LaVelle said.

Noting that board members are not Park District employees, she said: “We don’t have visibility into the day-to-day operations. … You know what you are told. It’s a trust factor. Management tells you what management and staff are doing. They tell you what they’re planning. They tell you what they implement. … You have to be able to trust the administrator to tell you what is going on.”

When a television reporter told LaVelle her response sounded like she was “passing the buck,” she finally acknowledged her share of the blame.

“It is not acceptable that any of this continued to happen. It is not acceptable that this started long before any of us that I’m aware of were here. It’s all unacceptable. I accept my responsibility as a person who was sitting in this chair at the time that this was exposed. I can’t be responsible for the people who came before me. I can be responsible for my part of it. And I have accepted that mistakes were made. It was a dysfunctional investigative process. It was a dysfunctional response process,” she said.

“There are many factors. Some of this rests with the management of the Park District that did not tell us the truth.”

Two of Lightfoot’s closest City Council allies — Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Ethics Chair Michele Smith (43rd) — said they didn’t buy LaVelle’s claim she relied on Kelly to tell her the truth about the steps he was taking to respond to complaints from two young women who were victims of the abuse.

“The inspector general reports directly to her — and only to her. And therefore, she had to have known certain things that were going on during and in the run-up to the investigation,” Smith told the Sun-Times.

“The first responsibility as a matter of good governance and lots of experience is to report your findings and do something. And nothing was done. Nothing was shared. That’s her responsibility.”

As for LaVelle’s claim that she had no choice but to trust the reassurances she got from Kelly that he was cleaning up the scandal, Smith said: “She knew that these allegations were there and she took no action. That’s what she did. That alone is enough for her to resign. … She has an ultimate personal responsibility.”

Smith also told the Sun-Times the jury was still out on whether LaVelle played a behind-the-scenes role in the suspension and firing of Deputy Inspector General Nathan Kipp, who had led the lifeguard investigation.

Special counsel Valarie Hays found “no evidence” to substantiate Kipp’s claim he was fired to “whitewash” the lifeguard investigation.

But Smith noted: “One gap in the report is that they did not have the charge to look into communications between or among Ms. LaVelle and Ms. Little. That’s a failing of that report that deserves further investigation because we don’t know … who knew what when. That deserves more investigation. That will shed light on the termination of Mr. Kipp.”

Waguespack said LaVelle “had a lot more information than she was letting on” during the news conference to release the special counsel’s report and announce the firing of those three top executives.

“She was getting reports directly from the OIG. She was managing the IG Elaine Little. She was very well-versed on what was happening,” Waguespack said.

“Yes, you could argue that Mike Kelly didn’t tell her everything. But, she had more than enough knowledge to know that the board … should have taken immediate action.”

Shortly before Kelly was fired, Waguespack said he and Smith met privately with LaValle to discuss the burgeoning scandal.

At that meeting, LaVelle characterized the complaints of sexual harassment and abuse by young women who worked as lifeguards as the product of “disenchanted staff and sour grapes,” Waguespack said.

“It was in the context of who the people are that were complaining victims. It really was. It was trying to make it sound like it wasn’t as big a deal as the media was making it out to be,” Waguespack said.

“Disrespect for the victims. I was very angry. I realized at that point that this was far more serious than they were letting on.”

LaVelle has said that the “sour grapes” and “disenchanted former staff” was not a reference to the young women’s allegations, “nor were those assertions made by me.”

She hinted strongly that Kelly, who attended the private meeting with Smith and Waguespack, was the one responsible for making that statement.”

“In the meeting between the aldermen, Superintendent Kelly and me, I personally assured the aldermen that the women’s allegations were taken very seriously and being investigated,” LaVelle wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

“I urged the aldermen to let the facts as uncovered by the investigation dictate the discipline. I have concurred with every disciplinary recommendation to Park District HR brought forward by the IG’s office as soon as allegations against employees were substantiated.”

When former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was caught stealing from the impoverished school district and shaking down a CPS contractor, the president of the Board of Education at that time, David Vitale, resigned for failing to watch closely enough.

But Waguespack said there are more recent examples with closer parallels to the lifeguard scandal of boards that paid the price for lax oversight.

“The two [scandals] that … they should have learned from because we were all watching it was, first of all the women gymnastics [scandal with Larry] Nassar. And the second one was the National Women’s Soccer League, where two board members resigned immediately because they waited eight days to respond to an email about women who were being abused,” Waguespack said.

A former City Hall reporter for radio stations WJJD and WGN, LaVelle served as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first press secretary before taking a top job in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration. She now runs a media consulting company with an array of government-related contracts.

LaVelle, appointed to the park board by Emanuel in 2012, has been board president since March 2019.

Sources close to LaVelle said she initially hoped to ride out the storm, salvage her reputation and stay on as board president at least long enough to honor Park District commitments that helped pave the way for former President Barack Obama to choose Jackson Park as the site of his presidential center.

Lightfoot appeared to give LaVelle that opportunity by allowing her to join Escareno at last week’s news conference.

But the hostile questioning made it increasingly “obvious” public trust would be tough to restore as long as she remained on the board, the sources said.

“When you’ve got people calling for you to resign, she realizes she’s the chairman of the board and has to accept this reality. She doesn’t want to be a distraction,” a LaVelle ally said.

Noting that LaVelle is in the business of advising her clients how to handle themselves in the media, the source said, “She has to make a living. This isn’t helpful.”

In what would be her last board meeting as president, LaVelle played an active role in board discussions on a variety of subjects

When complaints were raised during the public comment section about the security of concerts in the parks, LaVelle referred to the weekend concert stampede in Houston that killed eight people, including best friends from Naperville.

“Not that we want to prohibit concerts or anything on that order. But, the situation in Houston has probably raised for all of us some concerns to make sure that were are doing everything that we need to do to be focused on safety,” she said.

“I cannot tell you the fate of any particular park or any particular festival in a park. I can only tell you that I am certain that we will be looking closely at what is done in every festival to make sure that every I is dotted and every T is crossed.”

LaVelle also flexed her oversight muscle before the board approved a $4 million change order for the $64 million contract to build a new Park District headquarters in Brighton Park.

She told the board that she and fellow member Jose Munoz “pushed back hard” on the “notion of a $4 million change order” during a private briefing on the environmental clean-up that triggered the increase.

“That is a very large amount of money. And we wanted to be able to assure people who were paying attention to this that this was not a way for somebody to come in and low-ball a bid and then raise the amount of money they’re asking for in a change order,” she said.

“I’m very glad to hear that…you do the due diligence on it and that you just don’t routinely accept at face value the cost estimates that are put before you when people come to say they’re asking for a change order.”

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