Ease up, El Monte
When a group of lifeguards and water safety instructors for the El Monte Aquatic Center got fired for making a video spoofing the hyper-viral “Gangnam Style” pop music video, no one disputed that they had violated city regulations. Even the college-age part-time employees themselves admitted that their video, intended as a fun memento of a summer at the pool, was, as a city statement says, “an unauthorized use of city resources and property.” (The resources? The pool and their red swimsuits.)
They should have been disciplined in some way for their misdeeds. But firing them seems like an outsized punishment for making an innocuous video, dubbed “Lifeguard Style,” the most offensive part of which was some uncoordinated dancing.
Public employees shouldn’t be using public resources for their own amusement or enrichment. At a time when small cities are being scrutinized for excesses and embezzlement, municipal governments should be vigilant. But this transgression hardly rises to the level of a Bell-type scandal, and these college kids seem to have thought only that they were being clever. Or more to the point, they didn’t really think at all about what they were doing.
Also, they apparently forgot the work agreement they signed, including the part about unauthorized use of city property being “cause for disciplinary action.”
Since the story broke, the video makers have scored hundreds of sympathizers (including the South Korean rap star Psy, who made the original “Gangnam Style” video) and more than 1.5 million hits on YouTube. El Monte city government officials were, meanwhile, caught in a difficult situation. Cities have a right to set rules and enforce them. And unauthorized use of city property can cause problems. Chances are fewer people would have balked if city officials had dismissed a group of firefighters for allowing their trucks to be used in a porn shoot — that actually happened in L.A., although no one was fired — or if police officers misused their weapons while making a video for their own fun. But there are levels of infractions, and as with any crime, the punishment meted out must match the severity of the offense. Lifeguards don’t have the same power or responsibilities as police officers.
The mayor has already called for an independent review of this incident and the way the city’s rules were enforced. City officials could consider mandating zero tolerance of any unauthorized use of company resources — whether by a cop or a tree trimmer — and deem it a fireable offense. But they should make that explicitly clear. Until then, our advice to El Monte city employees: Ask for permission first, not your job back later.
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