Contract negotiations to decide who will operate Menlo Park's public pools appear to have hit an impasse at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, June 28.
The city offered current Burgess Pool operator Tim Sheeper a one-year contract as it seeks to find a single operator to run both Burgess Pool and the new Menlo Park Community Campus (MPCC) aquatics center in Belle Haven, which is set to open in 2023.
Since 2006, the city has outsourced the operation of its public pools to Sheeper.
At issue is not only the contract details, but criticism that under Sheeper, too much priority has been given to athletic programs at the expense of public access to the pools.
Sheeper was not at the meeting, though he and Carole Hayworth, CFO of Team Sheeper sent emails to the City Council that provided their stance on the negotiations.
Sheeper listed several of the accomplishments under his supervision, including offering the "lowest-cost and highest accessibility" for both open and lap swim, as well as claiming to have had the highest number of public year-round swim lessons in the Bay Area prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sheeper states that he is requesting a five-year contract to rebuild the institution following the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We fully believe it will take an all-hands-on-deck, concerted effort and that length of time to build back to our baseline of services we had pre-pandemic," Sheeper wrote.
He said he is interested in operating the new MPCC facility, but that the company cannot assume the risk of both Burgess pool and MPCC being included in the city’s request for proposals from new operators, so he would like Burgess to be excluded from the process.
Hayworth's email noted that Sheeper waited two months to hear from the city following his notice of termination, before sending his starting terms on May 2. She wrote that the contract was being negotiated so close to the contract's end due to city staff delays and a lack of notice about it being brought to the council. She also said that the contract being offered was not a one-year contract, but a contract subject to end either in a year or when the Belle Haven pool is completed.
"This leaves complete uncertainty and instability not knowing exactly when the contract would actually terminate," Hayworth wrote. "(The contract) is not guaranteed to last through another cycle. We are looking for some stability and commitment."
Hayworth said that Sheeper and Menlo Park had a history of five-year contracts before the current one-year contracts began and that only monthly memberships are available to pool users until he knows whether the contract will be terminated.
According to city staff, Sheeper is also requesting compensation for revenue lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and to end a revenue-sharing agreement that's in the current contract, which expires on Aug. 31. In February, Sheeper issued a notice of termination if he and the city can't come to an agreement before the contract ends.
Three people spoke at the meeting about the lack of access for disabled and elderly residents of Menlo Park at Burgess Pool, bringing up the cancellation of several wellness programs during the COVID-19 pandemic that were never reinstated. There is currently one wellness class offered at Burgess Pool.
“There's been an undue emphasis on the athletic component of Tim Sheeper to the exclusion of some of the rest of the residents of Menlo Park,” resident Janet Davis said. “Especially the elderly and the disabled … a lot of people who would like to use the pool cannot at the moment.”
Council members took issue with both the lack of wellness programs at Burgess Pool as well as Sheeper’s contract requests.
“I think for Mr. Sheeper essentially to be threatening to take his ball and go home when it’s, in fact, the city’s pool is … a very challenging place to be,” Mayor Betsy Nash said.
Nash also said that she didn’t see why Sheeper would be compensated for lost revenue when residents weren’t receiving the services offered by Burgess Pool.
Council member Cecilia Taylor asked if the city or Sheeper had done a survey of those who use the pool in order to gauge interest in specific programs and see if Burgess Pool is serving the full needs of the community. Sheeper does conduct a survey annually, said Sean Reinhart, director of Library and Community Services.
Council member Jen Wolosin suggested that a community-wide survey be conducted to see if there are people not being served by the pool who wouldn’t have been included in Sheeper's surveys. She added that she’s grateful to Sheeper for the service of operating the pool over the years.
“We do get emails from various residents and constituents with concerns,” Wolosin said. She stated that the emails tend to focus on a lack of accessibility for elderly and disabled residents as well as families. "It's hard to know the extent of how many residents are really satisfied.”
Nash also took issue with the terms requested by Sheeper and did not want to change the contract offered by the city.
“I would shut the pool down rather than give in to these demands,” Nash said. “There are many things that (Sheeper) does well, but right now I do not like to be bullied into a position where I don't think it is advantageous for the city, I don't think it's advantageous for the residents.”
Wolosin, while open to negotiation, said she believes the five-year contract to be “untenable.”
Nash proposed a motion to offer Sheeper a one-year contract and proceed with a request for proposals for both pools while staying open to negotiations with Sheeper.
The motion passed 3-1 with Ray Mueller recusing himself and Drew Combs opposed. Combs said that he was not against the motion, but would like to concede to some of Sheeper’s terms while still looking for another operator for both pools.
If no agreement is reached, Sheeper's contract will end on Aug. 31 and Burgess Pool will transfer to another contractor or be run by the city of Menlo Park.