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Beach to courtroom - What's next for Jacksonville Beach volunteer lifeguards?

"The City of Jacksonville Beach has decided to ignore their voters," said the VLSC's past board of directors president.

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla — From the beach to the courtroom, more legal action is being taken as the controversy over volunteer lifeguards at Jacksonville Beach continues.

The Volunteer Life Saving Corps is now asking a judge to force the city council to put an amendment to the city charter on the ballot that would preserve the organization. On Tuesday the city council decided the amendment would not go to a vote.

The Controversy

"Anti-democratic," said Charles Bond, VLSC board of directors past president, about the city council's decision. "The city council and the mayor just told the citizens that they don't care what their citizens want and that they know best."

Jacksonville Beach Mayor Chris Hoffman calls the amendment's wording "vague" and does not want to put nonprofits the city cannot control in the city's charter.

"The citizens need to feel, though, that the amendment before them is legal, is enforceable, is implementable and won't have unintended, negative consequences," Hoffman said.

Hoffman says the amendment would take away the city's rights to the lifeguard building, owned by American Red Cross.

"If this amendment goes on the ballot and it passes, then that station and that land is in jeopardy because it would be up to the Red Cross and they are not limited in what they could do with it," Hoffman said.

The VLSC is already suing the city after lifeguards were locked out of the station in April. A hearing is set for September 14 via Zoom.

"This has now become bigger than just the Volunteer Life Saving Corps versus the City of Jacksonville Beach," Bond said. "The City of Jacksonville Beach has decided to ignore their voters and this is becoming about the rights and the democracy, the democratic process now."

Bond says the VLSC had a proposal to keep the volunteers and paid city lifeguards separate but share the building. Hoffman claims this would not work because the positions would look the same to the Department of Labor.

"We would certainly be welcome to a discussion that maybe starts with a little more of a blank slate and doesn't have the end in mind which is right now all we've really seen, including with this ballot petition, is going back to the way things have always been," Hoffman said. "And the only thing I know for sure is it's not going to be going back to the way things have always been."

The VLSC is the oldest organization of its kind in the country, according to Bond and a historical marker outside the building.

Are there enough lifeguards?

Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue Captain Rob Emahise says their goal in the summer is to have 12 orange lifeguard towers. He says they're meeting that goal and having more towers than that is unnecessary.

Numbers from the city show eight towers and 12 lifeguards during the summer season Monday through Friday and 12 towers and 18 lifeguards on Sundays -- all paid workers.

Volunteers used to cover Sundays and holidays, but now paid city lifeguards do that.

"From north end, south end at Jax Beach when the volunteers are out, we have 22 towers out," said Bond.

This number is disputed by Emahise who argues that number was closer to 18. Bond says the volunteer lifeguards would put the towers out at 7:00 a.m.

Information from the city's Ocean Rescue Division states they had a total of 48 staff members, including five full-time staff members, through the summer season. They state the summer season ended this past Monday. 

They state they started the year with about 30 lifeguards on payroll and no volunteers on staff this year.

During summer season, lifeguards are on duty 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. with half of the towers going out at 9:00 a.m. and the remaining towers going out at 10:00 a.m.

During spring and fall seasons, service is provided from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and during the winter season service is provided from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

"We've had challenges with the labor market in hiring," Hoffman said. "We have increased the pay of our lifeguards, but we are staffing them to the service levels that we're looking for."

On the 4th of July, the last major holiday since the volunteer lifeguard controversy started, there were 14 towers out on the beach.

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