Hermosa Beach City Councilman Robert (Bergie) Benz’s backing of a controversial endurance event that involves beer-chugging has once again drawn fire--this time from city school district officials.
In a letter written on behalf of the Hermosa Beach City School District’s Board of Trustees, Supt. Gwen Gross criticized Benz’s support of the annual Fourth of July Ironman competition, in which contestants must run a mile, paddle a mile on a surfboard and then chug a six-pack of beer without vomiting.
“We really felt that the children of Hermosa Beach look up to Bergie,” Board President Mary Lou Weiss said Wednesday of the Aug. 25 letter. “He was telling them it was OK to break the law by drinking on the beach and that it was OK to drink until you’re sick. We just felt we had to take a stand on it.”
But if school officials expected Benz to withdraw his support for the contest, which features a special award for “the most picaresque barf,” they were sorely mistaken.
In an undated, three-page reply to the school board, the combative libertarian not only defended the Ironman race, but also blasted the district’s anti-drug curriculum as irrational.
“It is my opinion that irrational laws restricting alcohol, like your school’s zero tolerance approach (to drugs), are bellwethers of a prohibitionist movement,” Benz said. “And it is this movement which represents the greatest danger to human life and threatens to tear our republic apart.”
The Ironman competition has been a Fourth of July staple at Hermosa Beach for more than a decade.
In previous years, revelers have staged the drinking phase of the event on private property. But this year’s Ironman, which drew more than 90 participants and about 100 spectators, sparked controversy when organizers decided to have the post-race drinking and vomiting on the beach, in violation of city law.
Outraged citizens protested when a 20-minute video, showing party-goers vomiting on the sand and sometimes on each other, ran later on public access television. Benz, who co-produced the video and placed second in this year’s competition, has since been the target of renewed efforts to recall him from office.
Last month, the Board of Trustees of the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade district decided to jump into the fray, directing Gross to write Benz a letter expressing their concerns about his participation in the event.
“The use of alcohol on the beach, which is clearly illegal, is of grave concern to those of us who have incorporated heavy emphasis on drug abuse prevention in our public school curriculum,” the Aug. 25 letter reads.
“In your role as a council member and a leader in our community, we ask that you carefully analyze your position and actions regarding the Ironman,” it said. “We ask that you use your position to endorse our programs, activities and projects that can jointly help students grow into healthy, productive citizens.”
In an interview Wednesday, Benz rejected the view that he should be a role model, saying parents should serve that function.
“The essential, key issue I can impart on kids is to always question authority,” he said. “The fact that kids look up to me as a role model is maybe because I am questioning authority.”
His lengthy letter, which is not dated and contains grammatical and stylistic errors, unabashedly defends the Ironman contest as a “free-spirited event which resembles a beach party.”
“To the potpourri of society, consisting of doctors, lawyers, engineers, lifeguards and surfers, participation in the Ironman is fun,” he wrote. “You and your board’s condemnation of the event is, in reality, an attempt to rationalize your school’s inaccurate drug-free curriculum.”
Benz also questioned whether the district’s children “would find the drug-free agenda in conflict with the cigarette smoking habits surrounding them, board members included.”
He ended his letter by asking the board to “carefully analyze its stance against the ritual fun-loving Ironman competition.”
“There are many people who participate in the Ironman competition who do not want or need the board’s hubristic meddling,” he said.
Gross refused to discuss Benz’s comments. But she noted that the board recently enacted a policy forbidding anyone from smoking on school property whether classes are in session or not.
“Basically, our board felt we needed to make a statement, which we did,” she said. “I understand he has his own concerns. But at this point, we’re moving forward with a lot of programs in the district and I have shifted my focus elsewhere.”