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A gathering Thursday that started as a rally in support of a private company's operation of Menlo Park's Burgess Aquatics Center quickly transformed into a scene more common among bickering third-graders than grown adults.
Finger-pointing and name-calling filled the area just outside the entrance to the three-pool aquatics center during a 30-minute shouting match between about 35 people, including both camps of City Council candidates.
Organized by supporters of council candidates John Boyle, Lee Duboc and Mickie Winkler -- who form the "majority" camp -- the rally was sparked by a flier recently mailed to residents by the San Mateo County Central Labor Council.
The flier says incumbents Duboc and Winkler "went off the deep end" in voting to turn over operation of the $6.8 million publicly funded aquatics center to Tim Sheeper and his for-profit company, Menlo Swim and Sport LLC.
"We're here to condemn this vicious attack ... on [Ms. Duboc and Ms. Winkler]," said Mr. Boyle. "We used to spend $415,000 a year on the pool, and we don't spend anything now."
Speakers also criticized the majority camp's opponents -- Vincent Bressler, Richard Cline and Heyward Robinson. Candidates Cline and Robinson have been endorsed by the labor council and the Service Employees International Union Local 715.
"If elected, Heyward Robinson and Richard Cline will have to repay their debts to [the union]," said Sam Sinnott, a member of Mr. Sheeper's Menlo Masters program. He said the majority camp is the only set of candidates that supports Mr. Sheeper.
The three opponents and their supporters stood on the outskirts of the rally, but moved forward as criticism heightened.
Roxanne Rorapaugh, a frequent critic of incumbents Duboc and Winkler, and JoAnne Goldberg, Mr. Bressler's wife, scoffed at Mr. Sinnott's remarks and interrupted his speech.
The rest of the crowd joined in, yelling at the opponents as they moved toward the center of the group, and waving signs in support of the majority candidates in the faces of Ms. Rorapaugh and Ms. Goldberg.
"We all support Tim Sheeper," Mr. Bressler yelled over the bickering crowd. "We'll abide by the contract, period. You're afraid we're going to take the pool away, but that's not going to happen."
Mr. Bressler's comments garnered brief applause, but the shouting match resumed, earning wide-eyed stares from swimmers going in and out of the center.
Mr. Cline tried to address the group, but was silenced by Ms. Duboc, who pointed and yelled, "You are endorsed; you are endorsed," referring to his union endorsements.
Realtor Dick Poe, among the majority camp's supporters, waved a copy of the union's flier at candidates Cline and Robinson.
Mr. Robinson responded by questioning signs that read "Tim Sheeper saves the pool $400,000," arguing that savings associated with privatization are still unclear.
After speaking, Mr. Robinson briefly stood chest to chest with a man wearing a "Boyle/Duboc/Winkler" T-shirt in a heated argument.
After about 30 minutes of debate, the arguing subsided, and rally participants and candidates broke off into several groups and held cordial discussions.
Mr. Cline reiterated that local unions' endorsements, like other endorsements, should not create a conflict of interest. He said he thought the rally was going to be exclusively in support of the pool, not against the union.
"I wouldn't have come to this event if I knew it was going to be this intense," he said.
"Once we get through the campaigning, then we can all go back to trying to unite the city," Mr. Boyle said after the rally.
The opponents have criticized the council for approving a no-bid, rent-free contract with Mr. Sheeper in February, four weeks after he came forward with his proposal to operate the center.
Mr. Sheeper stood behind the aquatics center's fence at the start of the rally, but left once the two sides began to argue.
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