Phoenix Lifeguard-Diversity Program was "Mischaracterized" by City Employee, Says City

A week after being battered on the blogs for its lifeguard-diversity program, the city of Phoenix has responded by throwing one of its employees under the waterbus.

Kelly Martinez, a recreation coordinator for Phoenix, "mischaracterized" the city program in a local National Public Radio report, says a news release put out by the city on Friday afternoon.

In its March 28 report, NPR quoted Martinez as saying, "The kids in the pool are all either Hispanic or black or whatever, and every lifeguard is white -- and we don't like that . . . The kids don't relate; there's language issues."

See also: Pool Lifeguards Too White for Phoenix; City Spends $15,000 to Offset Certification Fees for Black and Brown Lifeguard Applicants

The gist of the NPR article was how the city had spent $15,000 in the past couple of years in an effort to find lifeguards from the same communities where many public pools are located.

New Times was among the first to pick up on the odd statements by Martinez. A couple of days after our article went online, the NPR story went viral in the blogosphere.

Numerous right-wing blogs not only bashed Phoenix for perceived reverse racism, but added an error to the story by stating that minorities were recruited as lifeguards even if they couldn't swim.

The city did allow the recruits some extra time to practice their swimming skills during lifeguarding class, officials say, but all lifeguards hired by the city have to pass the same skills test.

Last week, Becky Huelett, Phoenix aquatics supervisors, admitted to New Times that the comments by Martinez to NPR sounded "really bad."

Huelett downplayed the comments somewhat, saying that Martinez had been quoted while speaking to a lifeguard, not in answer to a question by the NPR reporter. Huelett didn't deny that Martinez said the comments, though.

Martinez could not be reached for comment. City officials could not immediately say whether Martinez had been disciplined for "mischaracterizing" the program, (beyond the public spanking of the news release, that is).

Huelett tells us that the program, funded by a federal jobs grant, has never been about ethnicity or race. The idea is to bring in teens for the lifeguard jobs who lived in the same, low-income ZIP codes as the public pools in which they would work, she explains.

Recruits who lived in the desired areas would qualify to have most of the $75 certification fee reimbursed by the grant fund, Huelett says.

City stats show that, in 2012, the program subsidized the fees for 122 Hispanics, 44 blacks, 23 whites, five Asians and two in the "other" category.

Once certified, the would-be lifeguards still had to apply for the job.

"There is no ethnicity involved in the hiring process," Huelett says.

The city ended up hiring 71 of the 196 people who received the "scholarships." No breakdown for ethnicity or race was provided on the 71 hired lifeguards.

"We hired a bunch of fabulous kids," Huelett says.

Below: The statement put out on Friday by the city:

The Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department's efforts to recruit and train lifeguards recently were the subject of a story by the local National Public Radio affiliate. In that story, a department employee was quoted describing part of our lifeguard outreach as efforts based solely on race. Those comments mischaracterized the department's recent lifeguard recruitment efforts. We have attached a fact sheet that provides the full explanation of recent federal-grant funded lifeguard outreach and recruitment efforts.

Click here to read the city's fact sheet on the recruitment program.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.