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Vero Beach Lifeguard Association president Erik Toomsoo laid off

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of October 21, 2021)
Photo: Vero Beach Lifeguard Association president Erik Toomsoo.

Vero Beach Lifeguard Association president Erik Toomsoo, who rose to the rank of assistant captain and served as a training officer during his nine years on the city’s beaches, was laid off last week.

City administrators say Toomsoo’s non-union position was eliminated as part of a restructuring of the lifeguard staff.

Toomsoo said he was targeted for the layoff because he was an out-front advocate for the city’s lifeguards and their working conditions, and too vocal a critic of “waste, fraud and poor judgment” in the Recreation Department.

“This wasn’t related to my work performance,” Toomsoo said. “They got rid of me because they wanted to shut me up. They’ll get rid of anyone who raises issues and asks questions they don’t want to answer.”

It was Toomsoo, 53, who led the campaign to extend the hours of lifeguard protection at South Beach, Humiston and Jaycee parks until 7 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day, convincing the City Council in 2019 to spend up to $25,000 to cover the extra two hours.

He also has been urging the city to equip lifeguards at each of its beaches with an ATV. Currently, there are only two, but one is in need of replacement, or at least repair.

In addition, Toomsoo publishes the VBLA’s monthly “Beach Report,” which provides an array of statistics on the city’s beaches, including attendance, weather conditions and lifeguard activity.

One of Toomsoo’s complaints was Recreation Director Jim O’Connell’s decision to strip him of his duties as the lifeguard squad’s training officer, eliminating the Tuesday morning two-hour training sessions.

“We haven’t done any substantial training since he got here,” Toomsoo said of O’Connell, who was hired last year to replace the now-retired Rob Slezak. “He said our training was adequate.”

O’Connell also sought to eliminate the extended hours of beach protection, describing them in an April 28 memo to City Manager Monte Falls as a “costly and inefficient use of city resources” that “resulted in little added benefit to the city or our beach patrons” and “caused additional stress on our lifeguarding crew …”

Toomsoo said city lifeguards performed four rescues – all involving children – during the extended hours this past summer.

“Luckily,” Toomsoo said, “the City Council rejected the recommendation.”

Regarding the loss of his job, Toomsoo said he began receiving written warnings for not following the chain of command and official reprimands shortly after O’Connell took charge of the Recreation Department.

He said Falls and O’Connell “planned” his layoff when they adjusted the budget, adding that they could’ve simply fired him because he was an at-will employee, not a union lifeguard.

“But they knew if they fired me, I would have filed a whistleblower lawsuit, so they laid me off,” Toomsoo said. “And there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Falls and city Human Resources Director Gabrielle Manus denied the allegation in a telephone interview last Friday with Vero Beach 32963, saying Toomsoo’s disciplinary record and off-the-beach conduct was not considered when they made the decision to eliminate the assistant captain’s position.

“Not at all,” Manus said.

Falls said he asked department heads during the budget process to identify staff positions that could be eliminated or restructured, and O’Connell recommended restructuring the lifeguard squad to accommodate scheduling that would put more lifeguards on the beaches.

Manus said Toomsoo, as an assistant captain, held a non-union supervisory position, which was a factor in the restructuring of the lifeguard squad.

“Erik couldn’t be placed in the lifeguards’ daily rotation because, under our agreement with the union, a non-union employee may not take work away from a union member,” Manus explained. “So the only way a captain or assistant captain can be put into the rotation is as a fill-in, if there’s no union member available.”

With Toomsoo’s departure, the city will replace him with a lieutenant’s position manned by a union member.

Union members are not permitted to hold supervisory positions, Manus said, so the new lieutenant will not have any authority to set policy or take disciplinary action.

“He’s there to oversee the lifeguards in the absence of the captain,” she said.

Toomsoo said the lieutenant’s position was not offered to him – the memo informing him that he was being laid off stated there were no vacant, non-union positions available for someone with his qualifications – and he probably would not have accepted, anyway.

“There’s just so much vitriol with the way they came after me,” said Toomsoo, who defiantly challenged the legitimacy of the disciplinary actions taken against him.

However, Falls said Toomsoo was offered the opportunity to be placed on a “recall list,” which would have made him a candidate for any city positions that became available during the next year.

Manus said Toomsoo wasn’t immediately eligible to apply for the new lieutenant’s position because, under the city’s agreement with the union, the job must be posted for union members for 10 days before it can be made available to non-union applicants.

“Erik had every opportunity to be placed on layoff status, but he elected not to do so,” Falls said. “If a lifeguard job became available, we’d post it internally on our job board and union employees get priority.

“But jobs come open all the time,” he added, “and lifeguard positions are among the jobs that come open quite often.”

Toomsoo’s annual salary was $46,000, and the new position – including benefits – will save the city about $8,000. Manus said the layoff was not a cost-cutting measure.

“We make decisions based on the position, not the person, and what’s best for the city,” Manus said. “This restructuring enables us to put another full-time lifeguard on the beach, which was needed. The last six to nine weeks, we’ve been struggling to put lifeguards on the beach.”

Last month, Humiston Park Beach was closed to bathers for five days because there weren’t enough lifeguards available.

According to O’Connell, the lifeguard squad was left shorthanded by COVID-related illnesses, scheduled vacations and other sick days.

At full strength, the squad should have nine full-time lifeguards and at least eight part-timers.

Manus said Toomsoo, a United States Lifesaving Association Medal of Valor recipient who launched the fundraising campaign to build a “House of Refuge” lifeguard tower and headquarters at Humiston, was a “very competent, very talented lifeguard.”

Toomsoo, who owned and operated several health clubs in New Jersey before selling them in 2010 and moving to Vero Beach, said he could retire – or he might run for City Council.

“It’s certainly something I’m considering,” he said. “A lot of people know who I am.”