JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – The Volunteer Lifesaving Corps is one step closer to asking voters to decide its future.
The corps provided volunteer lifeguards at Jacksonville Beach on Sundays and holidays until earlier this year when a Department of Labor investigation found the volunteer work was actually unpaid work for the city, as many of the volunteer lifeguards were also paid lifeguards for the city.
Now, the corps and its supporters are hoping to let the voters decide on the organization’s future with a ballot referendum in November. The corps has received thousands of signatures for a petition to let voters decide on a proposed amendment to the city charter that would allow volunteer lifeguards to work in parallel with Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue lifeguards.
The proposal also calls for the city to give up any ownership of this historic lifeguard station and the property on which it sits and immediately let the corps to immediately resume its operations.
Earlier this week, more than 3,800 signatures for the petition were submitted to the Duval County Supervisor of Elections Office for review. The corps needs 2,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot this November, but the mayor and a local attorney say there are a lot of questions about what it would mean if passed.
“Back in April, this all started when the city manager illegally kicked us out of that building and locked the doors,” said Charles Bond, former president of the Volunteer Life Saving Corps Board of Directors.
In a letter dated April 5, the city manager accused corps members of using the lifeguard station without permission for graduation and orientation of new recruits, writing, “Not only was the VLSC’s action disruptive and unprofessional, at times the behavior rose to a level that caused City staff to feel extremely uncomfortable, intimidated, and harassed.”
The city manager also wrote, “Based on the VLSC’s action and behavior, the City has determined that it can no longer go forward with the VLSC as a community partner.”
In response, the corps said it did have permission to use the building and rejected the claim that it created a hostile work environment. It also asked for the access codes to the station and threatened legal action.
The parties are now in a legal confrontation. Jacksonville Beach Mayor Chris Hoffman says it seems the corps and the city have different visions for the future of lifeguarding at the beach.
“So not only do we have an ongoing lawsuit with the corps, but now we have this petition initiative,” Hoffman said.
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The petition calling on voters to allow the corps to continue its partnership with the beach began circulating in recent weeks.
Attorney Tad Delegal, who is not involved in the dispute, says the petition could be challenged in court.
“The city of Jacksonville Beach could challenge the referendum if the referendum went too far and infringed on the rights of the city council for instance to make legislative decisions,” Delegal said.
The signatures for the petition were submitted Monday, and the I-TEAM was told it usually takes about a week to verify the signatures.