Officials say race not a factor in denying nanny access to beach
A misunderstanding during a recent visit to Lake Mohegan provoked claims by a local family that their child-care provider was treated unfairly because of her race, and prompted town park and recreation officials to rethink their family beach pass policy for nannies and babysitters employed by the pass holders.
Parks and Recreation Director Gerry Lombardo said Monday he was not at Lake Mohegan when the incident occurred July 21, and couldn't comment on the specific circumstances. But based on conversations he had with the lake attendant on duty that day, as well as Waterfront Director Steve Berecz, who was called to the scene, and the mother who employs the child-care aide, Lombardo said he does not believe it was a case of discrimination or intolerance. He believes it was likely a misunderstanding over use of the family beach pass.
Lomabardo also told the angry parent, Sarah Lehberger, that the department is willing to review the policy and consider revisions.
"We try to think of everything when we set up the rules," Lombardo said, acknowledging that changes sometimes are needed. As an example, he said, the regulations regarding senior citizen beach passes were amended in recent years. "We came up with a grandparents' pass," he said, that allows seniors to bring their grandchildren to the beach.
The controversy erupted when the black care-giver, Tasha Williams of Bridgeport, brought Lehberger's 4-year-old daughter to a swimming lesson at Lake Mohegan on July 21 and was denied entry. The beach attendant -- who is also black -- told Williams she was not covered under the family pass and required a pass of her own to gain entry. Non-residents are allowed to purchase passes to Lake Mohegan for $60, double the rate for a resident family or individual. The other option is to pay the daily use rate -- $8 for residents, $15 for non-residents -- according to Lombardo.
Williams, a green card-holder from St. Lucia who has lived in the United States for 12 years, said she has cared for Fairfield children for more than a decade and was never before refused entry. "I showed it (the family pass) the same way I've been showing it for the past 10 years I've been working in Fairfield. I never had that problem so I was shocked," she said.
Williams, who also had Lehberger's 21-month-old son with her, said she was embarrassed but also insulted that at least one white nanny was allowed entry using the pass of the family who employs her. "Why can a white nanny bring the kids, but a black nanny can't bring the kids? If you need a (separate) pass for the nanny then it doesn't matter the color of the person," said Williams, who also allegedly was told by the beach attendant that police were being called to scene. However, Lombardo said, the attendant only alerted the waterfront director about the incident.
According to Lombardo, even a live-in nanny is not covered under the family beach pass and must obtain their own, just as any adult child over age 18 is required to have a separate pass.
Lehberger said she would like to see some consistency in enforcing the rules.
Williams suggested a less humiliating method would be to ask everyone for an ID. "Any white person could say, `I'm the parent,' but that doesn't mean that you have proof that the person is the parent," she noted.
Lehberger said the current policy for family beach passes is outdated and does not reflect the needs of working families and their child-care situation. "With this economy more families are relying on extended family, nannies and babysitters ... I've already paid for my pass and our sitter is replacing me for that day," Lehberger said.
"It's not like I'm using the facility," Williams said. Rather, she said she comes to the beach to bring a child to a one-hour swimming lesson.
Lehberger suggested to Lombardo that the town's Parks and Recreation Department adopt a pass similar to that of the Connecticut Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, which offers family memberships and then a family-plus-one membership for an additional $15 fee. Unlike the Lake Mohegan pass, which has the holder's name attached, the zoo plus-one pass is transferable to any additional individual.
Lehberger said she hopes Parks and Recreation Commission members keep an open mind as they consider the family pass policy. "We would hope that the community would make certain events and activities for families more family-friendly, and that includes the extended family ... (Tasha) is a part of our family, and we love her."