Almanac

News - October 27, 2010

Fight for Burgess pool contract

by Sandy Brundage

The rivalry between two Menlo Park swim clubs has splashed beyond the pool, as Team Sheeper and SOLO Aquatics attempt to out-bid each other to manage the city's swimming pools.

Team Sheeper, of Menlo Swim and Sport, currently manages the Burgess pool complex as well as the Mavericks swim club. Four years ago the previous council awarded Team Sheeper the contract to operate the $6.8-million, publicly funded facility without charging rent or asking other vendors for bids.

SOLO Aquatics, another community swim club that practices at Burgess, initially supported Team Sheeper's management — only to have the relationship turn sour during arguments over pool access.

Troubled waters

SOLO's initial three-year contract with Team Sheeper included 2,184 free lane hours — essentially a year's worth of free swimming — that the city required. After that contract expired, the city had to intercede twice during negotiations to ensure SOLO got a fair deal compared with what other facilities in the region charged community groups, according to club members.

Those initial disagreements left lingering bad feelings on SOLO's part.

Although some of SOLO's 200-plus members sent verbose e-mails detailing their dissatisfaction to the City Council during the past month, their management is keeping a low profile.

SOLO

SOLO lead coach Tom McRae did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Almanac. However, volunteer board president Steve Zanolli spoke at the Sept. 28 City Council meeting, during which he commented on favoritism shown toward Team Sheeper's programs.

Some examples he gave the council: SOLO team photos get approximately one-quarter of the display space compared to Mavericks in the pool lobby; no coverage of SOLO in pool newsletters, apart from one September article that blamed the program for reduced lap swim times; and negotiations for pool access taking six to 10 weeks, extending past the start of SOLO's swim season.

Finally, he pointed to the city's website, where the section on Burgess pool links only to Team Sheeper's Menlo Swim and Sport website, without mention of SOLO.

Despite those comments, he later told The Almanac, "We really want to stay on positive, solution-based conversations."

The board president sounded rueful when asked about the negative e-mails sent to the city. "We did ask our members and parent members to show their support for SOLO. Again, to show their support for SOLO. What they loved about SOLO."

Mr. Zanolli agreed the two clubs struggle over pool availability, saying that happens with any limited community resource, be it soccer fields or swimming pools.

That includes haggling over practice times; at one point Team Sheeper suggested scheduling practices after most kids go to sleep. "That's not what we ended up with, but that's what was initially offered," said Mr. Zanolli.

Team Sheeper

Perception depends on where you're standing. For example, the announcement in the September newsletter Mr. Zanolli pointed out isn't quite a condemnation of SOLO:

"With regard to reduction in Lap Swim lane space, yes, it's true. Menlo Swim and Sport, along with the City of Menlo Park are supporting additional SOLO practices here at the Burgess Park Pools. Although this reduces Lap Swimming during SOLO practice times, we're undertaking to increase laps availability by extending hours and providing guards and staff later on weekends."

Mr. Sheeper shared his own perspective with The Almanac. "SOLO plays their role of a rental user group that attempts to get the most time in the pool, the most space in the pool, for the lowest cost possible. We expect that from SOLO, as we would expect that from all rental groups negotiating a pool rental agreement," he said.

The SOLO team gets six of the pool's 11 lanes from 4 to 5:30 p.m. five days a week, and extended hours three days a week when SOLO can't practice at Menlo-Atherton High School, according to Mr. Sheeper. Currently they have 65 hours a week at Burgess, while the Mavericks get 55.

As for rates — Mr. Sheeper said SOLO pays 75 percent of the going market rate for pool time. That amounts to $8 per hour per lane for regular practice; the two clubs are still negotiating fees for the extended hours.

The future

It's hard to assess what the going market rate is without examining the data. Even though each club's leader agreed to answer specific questions, neither would provide a copy of their contract.

The city interceded in their negotiations, but didn't do its own research to establish appropriate fees. According to City Attorney Bill McClure, the city relies on Team Sheeper and SOLO to provide data on comparable rates.

The Almanac asked the city for the data used in the last two negotiations, but it proved hard to find. Ditto for any notes made by the city during its mediations.

"To my knowledge our mediation consisted only of trying to help the two groups come to an agreement through some phone calls and encouraging words," said Community Services Director Cherise Brandell.

The lack of documentation, along with using data supplied only by the two competing clubs, raises questions about how much oversight Menlo Park actually exerts over the management of a taxpayer-funded public facility.

If SOLO wins the contract, it will face the same problems of allocating a scarce resource that plague Team Sheeper. How do they plan to solve them? Their plan doesn't sound so different from what Mr. Sheeper's already attempting: community education about the scarcity of pool time; being flexible about schedules; and coordinating lane time with age groups. "Little kids can't swim at 6 in the morning," Mr. Zanolli said.

Only SOLO Aquatics and Team Sheeper submitted bids for the new contract. Those proposals are still being vetted by the city attorney and not yet publicly available, since both clubs asked that portions remain confidential.

The City Council expects to award the new contract in December.

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