A judge’s decision this week means voters in Jacksonville Beach will indeed have a chance to decide the fate of the Volunteer Life Saving Corps. Volunteers had been patrolling the city’s beaches part-time since 1912 until recent legal issues arose.
On Monday, the Jacksonville Beach City Council rejected a referendum proposal that would have left voters to decide in November whether volunteer lifeguards could return to duty alongside paid Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue guards.
Council members praised the work of the volunteer corps over the decades, but said they feared the referendum was not legally valid for several reasons.
Circuit Court Judge Katie Dearing quickly overturned that decision. Since the volunteer group had collected petitions signed by at least 10% of the city’s registered voters, as required, the city is required to put it on the November ballot quickly, and “time is running out here,” said she ruled.
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The volunteer corps had filed an emergency complaint Monday ahead of the meeting, anticipating the city would speak out against the group.
The body said it collected 3,820 signatures on a petition representing about 19% of registered voters, nearly double the number required to secure a referendum on the ballot.
Volunteer lifeguards have a history of tradition and service
For years, volunteer guards, conspicuous in their old-fashioned one-piece suits, have guarded Jacksonville on Sundays and holidays during beach season.
Paid Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue members, some of whom overlapped the volunteer guards, worked the other six days of the week.
Each group worked from the historic American Red Cross lifeguard station on the waterfront — until the city recently locked the volunteer guards out of the station and removed them from duty on the beach.
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The city has maintained that his hand was forced after the US Department of Labor fined him for violating minimum wage and overtime laws of the Fair Labor Standards Act for allowing lifeguards to Ocean Rescue to volunteer without pay.
This federal investigation began after a former guard, who had worked with the volunteer corps and with Ocean Rescue, filed a lawsuit against the city for the long tradition of unpaid work.
Controversy has rocked the seaside town, where the volunteer corps has been a big part of local heritage and tradition.
The council feared the historic rescue tower was at stake
Council members said on Monday they feared the referendum as drafted would force it to override the Labor Department’s decision. The referendum could also have affected the historic rescue station, council members said.
The tower was long owned by the American Red Cross, sitting on land donated to the organization by the city. The ballot initiative would require the city to give title or interest in the building and ownership to the American Red Cross — which Mayor Chris Hoffman said could put the building’s future in jeopardy.
The American Red Cross could, according to her, decide to sell the building for another use.
Jim Emery, chairman of the volunteer corps board, said he didn’t believe the Red Cross would take such a step. The body hopes that it can rent the building or have it transferred to it.
He anticipates further challenges from the city but is now gearing up for the vote.
“We will campaign as hard as we can to get the referendum through,” he said. “We think we have overwhelming support, and we’ll go from there.”