JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – A public spat between the city of Jacksonville Beach and the Volunteer Life Saving Corps continues with a countersuit from the city.
Attorneys for the city responded to a lawsuit from the volunteer group with a counterclaim filed in Duval County court Tuesday afternoon.
The Volunteer Life Saving Corps, a not for profit group, has been around in Jacksonville Beach for 110 years and for decades it provided relief to paid guards by volunteering to watch the beaches on Sundays and holidays.
However, that relationship ended last month and the two sides remain at odds.
The city of Jacksonville Beach cut ties with the Volunteer Life Saving Corps in April, after a U.S. Department of Labor Investigation found guards couldn’t be paid some days and volunteer the others.
The two sides, the volunteer guards and city leaders, had been working out the details on their own, negotiating outside of court until last month when tensions came to a head.
In April, as the two sides tried to come to an agreement, city manager Mike Staffopoulos alleged some volunteers harassed paid guards at the lifeguard station he sent this letter ending the relationship and banning the volunteers from the building.
Days later, the volunteers sued the city, calling the expulsion a breach of contract.
“The volunteer life-saving corps station,” past president of the VLSC board Tim Saggau said in April. “We are the Volunteer Life Saving Corps and he [Staffopoulos] has no right to lock us out. We don’t have any right to lock them out.”
Through their attorneys, city leaders responded with a counterclaim filed Tuesday suggesting the volunteers breached its own contract with the labor violations.
Jim Emery, the current president of the VLSC board of directors, told News4JAX Wednesday that he was aware of the counterclaim and attorneys were reviewing it before making a response. He said he hoped the city and the volunteers could reach an agreement that would benefit everyone.
“In any civil litigation case where people are fighting over contract you see back-and-forth blaming each other as to who violated the contract,” said Gene Nichols, an attorney not affiliated with the case.
Nichols said even though a part of the contract may have been voided, case law shows the whole agreement may not be null and void. He said he hopes this case is resolved without costing taxpayers too much more.
“It’s all going to come down to whether or not a circuit court judge believes that contract was legally binding or not,” Nichols added.
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The city manager, who did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, had in the past said that the beaches continue to be guarded and are safe. The only difference is the guards are always paid city employees, instead of volunteers on Sundays and holidays.
He previously noted that the added staff assignments would cost taxpayers an estimated $125,000 a year.
The city already spent $250,000 on back pay as a result of the federal labor complaint, which was prompted by a suit from a former guard.
In April, Staffopoulos sent a statement to News4JAX about the guards’ claims.
The City is required by law to change our existing relationship because of a ruling by the Department of Labor (DOL) prohibiting current City employees from volunteering with the Corps, which had been done in the past. That DOL ruling resulted in the City paying $250,000 in back wages. The City is required to change its procedures to comply with the law. In addition, the City and its taxpayers face liability risks due to differences between staff and volunteers related to standard employment practices and policies, the City’s code of conduct and core values, the enforcement of City standards for volunteers, and other issues.