2007-11-30 / Community

Bronx Councilman Joins Rockaway Lifeguard Fight

By Nicholas Briano

The lifeguard crisis in Rockaway is at a point of crisis that it's drawing the attention of one Bronx City Councilman, who is calling for the resignation of two of the program's top officials.

Councilmember, Oliver Koppell, who represents the Bronx neighborhoods of Norwood and Riverdale, to name a few, believes that the lifeguard program coordinator, Richard Sher, a top official for Local 508 Lifeguard Supervisors Union and Chief Lifeguard, Peter Stein, should step down immediately, due to the ongoing lifeguard crisis that goes well beyond the shortage of guards each summer, but deep into the flawed hiring and training processes, as well. Koppell, a former lifeguard himself, was present two weeks ago when the City Council Parks Committee held an oversight hearing on the lifeguard program that drew many Rockaway activists to city hall in protest.

Koppell displayed his support, even though he is not a formal member of the City Council Parks Committee, for the testimony of many former lifeguards and Rockaway residents about the problems that lie within the lifeguard ranks. The support became official when he addressed a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg immediately after the hearing, stating that change must happen and that the Rockaway testimony should be strongly considered.

Testimony from a 28-year lifeguard veteran and Rockaway resident, Janet Fash, appeared to have moved councilman Koppell, and perhaps convinced him that change is imminent. Koppell's letter to the mayor cites Fash, who risked her career by coming forward and gave damaging testimony about the corruption, mismanagement, and favoritism of the entire lifeguard program, warranting the removal of the top-ranking lifeguard officials.

"Not only are their roles as union leaders completely inconsistent with their duties as supervisors," Koppell said in the letter to Bloomberg, "but the serious flaws in the program, including their inability to fully staff integrated positions for many years, warrant their (Sher and Stein's) removal."

Besides the firing of Sher and Stein, Koppell feels that there is no reason why part-time lifeguards cannot be hired into the program and suggests that New York City mirror training and hiring processes of Jones Beach, which has not had a single fatality on guarded beaches since 1995. According to the Department of Parks and Recreation's Deputy Commissioner, Liam Kavanagh, however, New York City averages about one death a year on guarded beaches, a rate that could be reduced by revamping the training process to free it of the favoritism and corruption that Koppell feels has damaged the program's integrity.

The new lifeguard contract is presently in negotiations. According to Jonathan Gaska, Community Board 14 District Manager, the time to act is now and changes can happen quickly if they are put in the new contract. He said suggestions were always turned down in the past on the theory that the lifeguard contract could not be changed.

"We can make a complete 180 degree turn, in no time," Gaska said. "The parks department cannot give excuses anymore, the timing is perfect."

Gaska also believes that The Department of Parks and Recreation must take control of the situation and exercise their authority in the direction of change and also stop letting the employees and union officials control the program.

"It is up to the parks to tell employees what needs to be changed," Gaska said. "They need to exercise their authority over the situation."

The firing of two individuals won't solve all problems, according to Gaska. "It must be more than that, a willingness to modernize and change a flawed process that has been in place for 40 years."

Community Board 14 Parks Committee Chairman, Dan Mundy, is calling upon other elected officials in Rockaway to support and reinstate the points in Koppell's letter to Bloomberg, asking for an overhaul of the lifeguard program in hopes that it will become an issue that Bloomberg will address directly.

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