City Hall veteran Rosa Escareno tapped as interim parks chief

City Hall veteran Rosa Escareno tapped as interim parks chief

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Escareno agreed to come out of her recent retirement to oversee the Chicago Park District, still in the midst of an investigation into rampant sexual harassment and abuse against lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools.

The board of the scandal-ridden Chicago Park Department has tapped a popular City Hall veteran to take the helm amid sexual misconduct investigations until a permanent replacement for ousted CEO Michael Kelly is named.

Rosa Escareno agreed to come out of her recent retirement as commissioner of the department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection to oversee the parks department, still in the midst of an investigation into rampant sexual harassment and abuse against lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools.

Kelly, 50, was forced out over the weekend for his role in mishandling that investigation, ending his decade-long career at the park district and becoming one of about 40 employees disciplined in the ongoing probe.

He had been told late Friday to resign from his $230,000-a-year position, board president Avis LaVelle said at the conclusion of Monday’s two-hour closed door meeting of parks commissioners — or else be fired for cause.

LaValle said she suspended Kelly Friday night, a fact she did not share following hours of meeting privately with other commissioners to hear a report by an outside attorney who took over the investigation after the inspector general had to resign when her past ethics problems came to light. That report has not been made public.

“Superintendent Kelly is not accused of sexual assault or harassment, but he is guilty of deceit and failing to take critical steps to promote the zero tolerance standards that must replace this frat boy culture that has been allowed to flourish here for too long,” said LaVelle, who has resisted calls from City Council members to step down. “As a board we thank Supt. Kelly for the work he did here … but he failed on one of the most fundamental tasks, which is protecting our employees and our patrons.”

“We the Chicago Park District board of commissioners remain committed to seeking the truth about the culture of tolerance that’s been allowed to flourish here and we will continue to do whatever it takes to root out and destroy that culture,” she said.

Escareno vowed to “support the ongoing progress and improvement of what needs to be done at the parks right now.

“There needs to be some serious conversations and serious review of existing processes to ensure that we continue to regain the trust of the people of Chicago, in that employees will look to the park district as a great place to work also feel that it’s a place that protects them and will look out for them,” she said.

A permanent inspector general also still must be named.

Chicago Park District General Superintendent and CEO Michael Kelly speaks about the disciplinary action taken against employees in the Beaches and Pools Unit during a press conference at the South Shore Beach House at 7059 South Shore Drive in South Shore, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Michael Kelly, who resigned last weekend from his post as superintendent of the Chicago Park District, speaks in August about the disciplinary action taken against employees in the Beaches and Pools Unit during a press conference at the South Shore Beach House.

As the district continues to deal with a scandal that victimized women working as lifeguards at the city’s parks and beaches, the choice of Escareno is a political masterstroke — even if it’s only temporary.

She is likable and experienced. Her track record in city government is impressive and her personal history is compelling; she was brought to Chicago at age 8 from Mexico by a widowed mother of six.

Her city jobs under four mayors ranged from administrative assistant and deputy press secretary to deputy chief operating officer and director of media relations for the Chicago Fire Department during a tumultuous year that high-rise training and firefighting techniques were revamped to prevent a repeat of mistakes that contributed heavily to six deaths at the Cook County Administration Building at 69 W. Washington St. on Oct. 17, 2003.

On July 31, Escareno finally ended a remarkable, 30-year-plus career that began straight out of high school, as an administrative assistant in the Office of Budget and Management.

Her rise was a glaring exception in for a city government known for the slogan, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”

The question now is whether Escareno is interested in filling Kelly’s shoes on a permanent basis or whether she is there, only on a temporary basis.

In a statement, Lightfoot described Escareno as “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.”

Oak Street Beach on Aug. 4, 2021. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Oak Street Beach in August.

The mayor has told associates the lifeguard scandal is so pervasive, nothing short of a “house-cleaning” at the Chicago Park District will give parents the confidence to send their kids to its camps and programs or have their older children feel safe enough to work in the parks.

If that happens, Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), who worked his way up the ranks at the Chicago Park District, has made it known that he wants the job. His father and namesake was an all-purpose troubleshooter for former Mayor Richard M. Daley and once served as Park Board president.

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