CHICAGO (CBS) — On the heels of the resignation of longtime CEO Mike Kelly, the Chicago Park District Board on Wednesday named recently retired Chicago Business Affairs Commissioner Rosa Escareno as his interim successor.

Kelly resigned as the district’s CEO and general superintendent 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.

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At the time, 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.”

The Park District Board formally accepted Kelly’s resignation during its meeting on Wednesday, and named Escareno as the district’s interim CEO and general superintendent while the search begins for a permanent successor.

Escareno retired from city government at the end of July, after more than 30 years in various roles at City Hall, including four years as commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

She began her City Hall career under longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley, and continued to hold top posts under Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Lightfoot.

“Rosa is an experienced and highly competent executive and a consummate professional. Rosa has my full support and confidence. Having served three mayors and with more than three decades of public service experience, Rosa has proven leadership skills and a breadth of experience that will inform her efforts to lead our Park District and maintain our beautiful public spaces and facilities during this interim period,” Lightfoot said in a statement on Escareno’s appointment. “Rosa is the right leader for this moment to bring confidence back into our Park District and to ensure it continues to provide crucial services to our community. As we conduct our search for the next General Superintendent, I look forward to ushering in a new era of accountability in our parks system.”

During her tenure, Escareño has served as deputy chief operating officer under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, deputy press secretary for both Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley, director of media relations at the Chicago Fire Department, deputy commissioner at the Department of Business Affairs and Licensing, and as a budget analyst in the Office of Budget and Management.

Escareño helped create the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP) in 2009, when the Daley administration merged two other offices, and took command of the department in 2017, after several years as a top deputy.

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She takes over as interim CEO at the Park District amid at least two ongoing investigations into claims of widespread sexual harassment and abuse of women and girls who worked as lifeguards at the district’s beaches and pools.

Kelly’s resignation came just weeks after Chicago Park District Inspector General Elaine Little resigned amid her office’s ongoing investigation into the sexual abuse scandal.

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.

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.

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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.

CBS 2 Chicago Staff