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'Gangnam Style' lifeguards: Mayor calls for review of firings

September 19, 2012 |  8:00 am

El Monte Mayor Andre Quintero has called for an independent review into the firing of 13 lifeguards and their manager after they wore city uniforms to film a dance video in the city pool.

Their spoof, "Lifeguard Style," a spinoff of "Gangnam Style," the viral hit by South Korean rapper Psy, attracted global attention to the city of nearly 114,000 people. at At a packed meeting of about 300 people, supporters pleaded with City Council members Tuesday night to give the lifeguards their jobs back.

But Quintero and other city leaders said they didn't want to rush making a decision. The goal of a review, the mayor said, would be to get a "clear sense of what took place so this doesn't happen again. At the end of the day, our brand as a city has taken a big hit. We want to make sure we treat our employees with respect and dignity."

On their way home, many of the lifeguards who participated in the video posted on YouTube in August said they were not surprised.

"They need to review their policies and procedures because their policies are so vague," said Michael Roa, who came up with the idea for the spoof.

But after "tremendous feedback" from around the world, including more than 12,000 signatures collected for an online petition to save the lifeguards' jobs, he said "the public deserves a response as soon as possible."

So far, Councilman Bart Patel is the only city official to speak out in favor of the former employees.

Others, such as Councilwoman Vicky Martinez, said she wasn't ready to make decision on the matter. The review, she noted, is "necessary so this council can really come to an understanding of everything that's come to past. We want to move forward with our community in a positive manner. This isn't just affecting the 14 [lifeguards], but the whole community."

Jane Myring, 70, born and raised in El Monte, led the chorus of folks eager to see the college-age lifeguards regain their positions. During Tuesday's council meeting, as a bank of TV cameras zoomed in on her as the first speaker, she said, "We do dumb things and we don't think about it. ... I'm concerned for their professional life," adding she didn't want their chances of getting future employment at risk.

Other supporters talked about their sons and daughters who love going to the El Monte Aquatic Center. Cashiers are now trained for three days, then sent into the water to teach kids, replacing the lifeguards, according to Gabriel Gonzalez, the former pool manager.

He said he recently had a job interview, and "the first thing they asked me about was the El Monte situation. It's going to follow me wherever I go."

Yvonne Tam, a UC Santa Barbara student and former lifeguard, said she and her co-workers used the video "to finish off the summer with a fun activity we all could participate in."

Most of the fired lifeguards have won multiple awards from the same managers who let them go, including "Instructor of the Year" and "Rookie of the Year," she said.

Xavier Hermosillo, a political consultant from Los Angeles who has worked with El Monte leaders, said that after the firings he "immediately suggested they hire them back, pending an investigation."

"The city is the laughingstock of the nation," he said. "I told them, 'Be fair. Do the right thing.'"

Council members would not be pushed. Quintero promised that the review would focus on social media guidelines and steps involved in hiring and terminating staff. He did not detail how much time such an investigation would take.

"I have lived in El Monte my whole life, and for the first time ever, I'm ashamed of my city," said Angela Rodriguez, who along with her husband owns Flash Graphix, a printing and design firm.

Civic boosters should have used the video, with nearly 1.5 million YouTube views, for promotion, and they should "be proud" of the lifeguards, "instead of condemning them," she said.

"These employees were doing good, clean fun," said Sabrina Rodriguez, a senior at El Monte High School.

Gonzalez, the former lifeguard manager, is her cheerleading coach, and she and the squad came out Tuesday night, rooting loudly for him.

"He has devoted his whole life to us, and to fire these 14 amazing leaders is wrong," she said. "Absolutely wrong because you're leaving us youths with no one to look up to."

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-- Anh Do in El Monte

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