Lifeguards and our Sense of Place

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On Tuesday evening a group of us was enjoying a rollicking conversation about baseball when from out of left field came a comment from a man of a certain age about the City’s decision to examine the outsourcing of the part-time lifeguards who patrol Corona del Mar State Beach. Despite his self-avowed conservative politics, he disliked the idea.

Given the number of signs that have sprouted up in town (“Keep Newport’s Lifeguards in CdM”), quite a few others in this Republican town feel the same.

This seems contrary to the national campaign by fiscal conservatives to rein in the burgeoning future pension costs of public employees. After all, much has been made about the benefits that public safety employees enjoy. So what’s not to like about outsourcing them?

The issue is more complex than one might think and requires more ink than I get for this 600-word column, so I’ll limit my remarks here to one aspect that doesn’t get much coverage.

Part of it has to do with tradition. Many locals recall going through the city’s Junior Lifeguard Program, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

I wasn’t the only mother in town whose ‘tween-age sons had to pass the program before being allowed to go surfing with their friends.

Some kids who went through the program went on to become part-time lifeguards and later full-time lifeguards. When you consider that many current residents grew up here and that 33 percent of our residents are age 55 or over (according to the 2010 U.S. Census), it’s not surprising that they remember that tradition and want those lifeguarding opportunities to remain local.

There’s more to it than nostalgia, though.

I surveyed our City Council members for their positions on the prospects of outsourcing the lifeguards. Most responded that it’s too early in the process to stake out a position.

As Councilmember Tony Petros emailed, “I have yet to receive a report that includes factual materials to base a conclusion. When I do I will weigh that and the comments from the people in Newport Beach and act in the best interest of our community.”

Councilmember Ed Selich pointed out in his email that “[m]anaging a city in these challenging times requires that the City Council consider any feasible outsourcing proposal. I will analyze [it] for cost implications, quality of service and, of course, public safety.” Selich added, “I will not be swayed by emotional arguments not based on facts.”

It’s this last comment that gives me pause.

Newport Beach is abundantly blessed by a landscape, and seascape, with a strong sense of place. Sense of place is a term that’s bandied about by land planners and social scientists but is hard to define, though you know it when you see it. As author Gertrude Stein famously complained of her hometown of Oakland, CA, “There’s no there there.”

There’s plenty of “there” in Newport’s small villages and islands, each area distinct and beloved for that by its residents.

Our neighborhoods, with their sense of place, exert a powerful emotional tug on us. An essential part of that tug involves the public servants who look after us, who, in this case, fish us out of the sea when a big set crashes into Big Corona.

The lifeguards, like the city’s recently outsourced trash collectors, are seen by many residents to be part of the fabric of our town. Personal histories and personal connections are in play here. These emotional ties may not appear on a spreadsheet, but I suggest that they are important to the wellbeing of our community and ought to be valued.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]

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