Seeking to save money and expand access at Rinconada Pool, Palo Alto officials approved on Monday a five-year deal with Team Sheeper, a company that has already increased pool usage but that also made waves in the past two months for its tense relationship with Rinconada Masters, a swimming club that has been using the pool for more than four decades.
The new contract, which the City Council unanimously approved, will allow the city to expand swimming times at the pool while saving about $140,000 annually when compared to in-house operations, according to staff. In recommending the new contract, Assistant Community Services Director Kristen O'Kane pointed to Team Sheeper's record of service and its belief that the vendor can provide a "welcoming and positive environment for all pool users."
For the city, the new contract represents a vote of confidence in a vendor that has been helping out at Rinconada since 2015, when the city faced a staffing shortage that prompted officials to consider canceling many of its swim lessons. To avert that outcome, it signed an emergency contract with Team Sheeper, founded by Tim Sheeper, which also operates Burgess Pool in Menlo Park.
"He came in at the last minute and helped us accomplish our goals for that summer," O'Kane said.
Since then, Team Sheeper has remained at Rinconada under short-term contracts, the latest of which expires at the end of this month. O'Kane said that since Team Sheeper came in, the number of open- and lap swimmers has increased from 53,000 to more than 63,000, and the number of lap swim hours had gone up by 10 percent. The swimming season has been expanded by 22 weeks and the number of unique students at Rinconada has gone up from 360 to 885. Rinconada also began to offer summer swim camps, which attracted 126 participants in 2017 and 354 in 2018.
Up until Monday, the biggest wildcard in the new agreement had been the fate of Rinconada Masters, an adult swim club, was founded in 1973 by Carol MacPherson. In October, Team Sheeper had informed Rinconada Masters that their contract will not be renewed. Since then, the council had heard from dozens of swimmers protesting the decision, which Team Sheeper attributed to the club's lax record on having sufficient lifeguards on duty.
In November, Macpherson and other coaches and swimmers criticized the city and Team Sheeper for failing to include the club in the negotiations.
"It makes no sense to replace an accomplished swim coach and a successful program like Rinconada Masters with another program that doesn't have the history, accolades and community roots like Rinconada Masters," Terri Baxter-Smith, an assistant coach at Rinconada Masters said at the Nov. 19 meeting.
Some have argued that the proposed revenue-sharing agreement makes financial sense for the city. Others said that the negotiations have been too murky and that the council should reject the contract.
"The process was conducted almost entirely behind closed doors, with little transparency," said Timothy Groves, a member of the club. "the process was highly unsatisfactory."
Now, there appears to be at least a short-term truce. In recent weeks, city staff has met with both sides to find a way to keep Rinconada Masters in place. O'Kane said as part of the agreement, the swim club will be able to stay on as Team Sheeper's subcontractor for six months. If everything runs smoothly, that agreement would be extended to 2019.
Given the latest development, Rinconada Masters stayed away from the Monday hearing and offered no objections to the new five-year contract. Council members also had only good things to say about the new agreement, with both Mayor Liz Kniss and Vice Mayor Eric Filseth pointing to usage data at Rinconada as a sign of success.
"Almost everything indicates that more people are using it," Kniss said. "The times will be increased, the number of visits a year will be increased. All this data is very encouraging."
Some lap swimmers said they were concerned about potential schedule changes and noted that Team Sheeper has only publicized the new schedule for January. Sheeper, who also serves as the company's CEO, assured the public that the schedule will remain roughly the same for most of the year, with expanded hours during the summer. He said his company's main goal is to build on a strong aquatic community that already exists in Palo Alto.
"In just about every pool, you have passionate pool users and everybody wants to be in that pool as much as they possibly can, myself included," Sheeper said, "I completely identify with these lap swimmers who aren't quite sure what's going to happen and what's going to happen to their pool."