2006-07-21 / Front Page

Outrage Over 'Failed' Lifeguard Program

By Brian Magoolaghan

A new program that was supposed to prepare teens for jobs as city lifeguards was sabotaged by the Lifeguard Supervisors union and Parks Department staffers who make their own rules and don't want anyone meddling in their training operation, sources familiar with the recruitment effort charged this week.

The Wave has learned that the community board, City Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr., a Rockaway man who helped to create the program, and others are crying foul about the way some local lifeguard-hopefuls were treated in their pursuit of one of the best summer jobs around.

Addabbo told The Wave he has arranged for a City Council oversight hearing in the fall, and Community Board 14 is forming a committee to investigate the program as well as lifeguard recruitment and testing, according to District Manager Jonathan Gaska.

Dan Mundy Jr., a local parent and former lifeguard who trained 10 of the would-be lifeguards by taking them to pools three to five times a week and running them through hours of swimming drills, says the "group was targeted for failure" because the Department of Parks and Recreation and NYC Lifeguard Supervisors union "do not want decentralization in their system."

That group, including Local 508 President Peter Stein, Parks' water safety director Richard Sher and Chief Lifeguard Javier Rodriguez, run an "old boys club" where "if you're not on the inside clique with them your chances of passing are a lot harder," Mundy alleges.

Mundy started training the teens, including two of his daughters, last September in preparation for a new lifeguard development program that started last November. The program, which was funded by the Department of Education and local elected officials, trained teens at four area schools with pools, including Far Rockaway and John Adams high schools.

Hank Iori, a Rockaway resident and DOE employee who helped develop the program and volunteered as a supervisor, said it was supposed to help Parks "meet the need for more lifeguards in our city." He now says the kids he worked with went on to be "hassled" by Parks staffers. "It was arbitrary and capricious at times," he said. "There was a definite sense that people in the Parks Department did not support running satellite [training] sites."

Mundy told The Wave the kids faced difficulties starting with their Parks tryouts in June. Twenty kids (including Mundy's 10) from the new program swam and only one of them passed for the beach, he said. The other 19 were told they could work in the pools only. The requirements for pool lifeguards are less stringent than for those guarding the city's beaches.

Mundy says he became suspicious of the testing process because the kids were consistently beating the clock by seconds when he timed them.

Testing at the West 59 Street pool is done behind closed doors. Parents are not allowed in the pool area, and Parks staffers use handheld stopwatches instead of ones posted where everyone can see.

Addabbo, who helped fund the program and tried to mediate between Parks, the union and local lifeguard hopefuls and their parents, took issue this week with the test procedure.

"Kids weren't given their time, they were just told they failed," Addabbo said. He also raised the issue of applicants being funneled to city pools instead of beaches.

"There's too much discretion as far as passing someone," which can "rig" the test, Addabbo said. "If everything is on the up and up, there's no reason why a parent shouldn't be there to root their kid on."

Mundy and Addabbo complained to Liam Kavanagh, Parks' first deputy commissioner, who they say tried to intervene by calling for another round of testing. Mundy said he was allowed to observe the swimming on June 29, along with Kavanagh and a Mayor's Office representative, and that two of the girls in his group passed.

Parks spokesperson Warner Johnston said Kavanagh "personally observed the testing of many of these trainees and found that all were tested appropriately."

But other kids, who went in for testing on July Fourth did not fare as well. Kavanagh and Mundy were not present, and the kids were flunked and were not given their times.

Mundy went back six days later with still-determined kids from his group. One of the kids smuggled in his own stopwatch and timed two girls who came in faster than the required time. All three were told they failed. Of the 10 Kids Mundy worked with, three are beach lifeguards and one is a pool lifeguard. Other figures on the program overall were not available.

Addabbo called for reform of the city lifeguard testing this week and said he's looking forward to asking Stein why the union isn't interested in increasing its workforce through satellite programs.

"People from the Mayor's Office should not have to baby sit lifeguard training," he said. Kavanagh and his department have been "handcuffed" by the union, he added.

Gaska and Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer have also been involved in the issue. A meeting was held last week in Pheffer's office where it was decided the kids' hopes for this season were lost. Gaksa said CB14 will establish a committee to "look at the whole process and make recommendations to elected officials and Parks."

"The Parks Department has not been able to have a handle on the union... clearly there's something going on here," said Gaska.

Johnston dismissed claims that Parks was trying to keep the kids from becoming lifeguards.

"We have no interest in preventing anyone who is qualified from working as a lifeguard," Johnston said. "Working as a pool lifeguard is still a great job and gives them additional training experience to help them to qualify to be a beach lifeguard next year."

Johnston also claimed that Parks has "more than enough lifeguards for all our beaches," although Rockaway has seen beach closings.

This is not the first time allegations like this have surfaced. In 1994, then-Public Advocate Mark Green accused Stein of "mismanagement, secrecy, favoritism and even deception," according to the New York Times.

A 16-year-old girl who trained with Mundy and decided to work at a public pool after she said she was jerked around by the city told The Wave that the test administrators "pick and chose" who they are nice to and pass. "We swam every day, and it was so unnecessary the way they treated us," she said. When asked why the kids were treated that way she said, "Because they could get away with it."

Stein and Sher did not return calls seeking comment for this story. Rodriguez could not be reached.

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I was a city beach lifeguard from 1979-1985. One year we were told we had to pay Mr. Stein $10.00 each in cash to get a cloth badge for our bathing suits, much like a red cross class badge, that said "P.U.S.H." Weaing that badge to the test would guarantee that we would pass the test at 59th pool next spring. Most of the lifeguards I knew coughed up the $10.00 for a badge we never got. Stein got away with extortion. Other people who paid this P.U.S.H. fee should speak up about it.

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