Cover Up Or Cover-Up?

From the start, East Hampton Village officials have mishandled a growing scandal stemming from women lifeguards’ official bathing suits. The unresolved matter has left several of the village’s seasonal employees feeling bullied and harassed, and left the impression that high-level village officials tried to keep the whole thing under a blanket.

The problems began in June, after the village board directed that new, somewhat more modest bikinis for its women lifeguards be ordered. Once the suits arrived, concerns about their fit were expressed by some of the guards, and while trying to figure out how to proceed, beach managers directed several of them to put on and model the new suits in an effort to determine if they were suitable. 

Then, male employees in village management positions thought it would be a good idea to photograph one or two of the female lifeguards (accounts vary) using a personal cellphone and leaving many of them aghast. 

The images were to be reviewed by the village board, the women were told. At least one additional set of photographs was ordered taken by male beach managers once the replacement suits arrived.

In a July 2 letter, several lifeguards explained that the new suits seemed designed for swimming pools, that they might trap sand while in use, and that the fabric was flimsy. This could pose a serious risk for rescuer and victim alike when trying to save lives, they said.

When they complained, however, they were denigrated for speaking up. The handling of the issue, particularly the photographs, left women lifeguards feeling degraded and embarrassed and raised “serious issues concerning sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.” Becky Hansen, the village administrator, began looking into the complaint a few days later, interviewing nine beach employees. 

Ms. Hansen’s was hardly an impartial investigation, as evidenced by her surprisingly tone-deaf report to the board on Aug. 17. While concluding that only procedural errors of communication were made, Ms. Hansen fell back on an inappropriate, outdated technique: She blamed the victims, claiming there was “credible evidence that the photographed employee volunteered to be photographed and that it was done in a lighthearted, comical manner.” Unless Ms. Hansen is rebuked for this outrageous misplacement of blame, we can only conclude that the village board shares her views.

Village officials also appear to have tried to run out the clock, perhaps hoping to make it to Labor Day without the news coming out. The Star found out about it only because the parents of some of the women who were photographed alerted us; village officials were tight-lipped until very recently. Nor was the issue discussed at a board meeting or any other public forum, which could have helped defuse bad feelings.

As a quasi-apology, the village has acknowledged that the process was mishandled and told the women that extra workplace harassment training would take place. This is not nearly enough.