Edith Gelles has been swimming with the Rinconada Masters for 35 years and, as a history professor at Stanford University, she is particularly sensitive about the club's legacy in the region.
The adult swimming program, which has been using the city-owned Rinconada Pool in Palo Alto since 1973, was the first and only masters swimming program in the Bay Area for decades, Gelles said. These days, it's more than a swimming group; it's a family.
"When someone has a birthday, we celebrate. When someone has a baby, we celebrate. When someone passes, we grieve," Gelles, 82, told the city's Parks and Recreation Commission on Tuesday night.
Now, the family is struggling to keep its home. Last week, the swim club was informed by Rinconada's new operator, Team Sheeper, that its contract will not be renewed in January. The announcement came as Menlo Park-based Team Sheeper is negotiating a new five-year deal with the city to manage the popular pool, which it has overseen since August 2017.
Tim Sheeper, founder and president of Team Sheeper, did not respond to the Weekly's inquiries Tuesday about his decision not to renew the contract with Rinconada Masters. But both city staff and members of Rinconada Masters said that Sheeper attributed the decision largely to safety concerns.
Earlier this year, the city commissioned a complete safety review by an independent aquatics professional to ensure that it employs best practices, said Jazmin LeBlanc, senior manager for strategy and operations of the city's Community Services Department. The consultant identified the need to have two lifeguards around the pool, with at least one on deck.
The city, she said, includes this requirement in its contracts with the various groups using the pool. Rinconada Masters hasn't always followed that requirement, she said, which influenced Team Sheeper's decision not to renew the group's contract.
"It's a serious enough concern for us that we felt like this was justified for Team Sheeper to move forward with overseeing the masters program (itself)," LeBlanc said.
The pending departure of the Rinconada Masters club is part of a broader wave of changes at Rinconada, which has grown much busier since Team Sheeper took over last year as part of the city's push to privatize pool operations. At that time, the city was struggling with staffing shortages and surging demand for aquatics programs.
In many respects, the switch to Team Sheeper has been a success, according to city staff.
Participation in the swim-lesson program has doubled to nearly 900 community members, LeBlanc said. Team Sheeper has also opened a new summer camp program, which was attended by 315 children. It transformed the seasonal recreational-swim program into a year-round one and it has significantly expanded lap swim hours. Feedback from customers, she noted, has been very positive in general.
But for Rinconada Masters, the switch from a public operation to a private one could mean the difference between existence and extinction. Under Team Sheeper's agreement with the city, the pool must maintain a masters program and a youth program, though it's up to Team Sheeper to decide whether to run these programs in-house or to hire subcontractors like Rinconada Masters. Earlier this year, Team Sheeper informed Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics (the other major swim club that uses the pool) that it plans to renew its contract. Rinconada Masters, meanwhile, was told that it wouldn't get a new deal.
More than 40 adult swimmers came to the Tuesday meeting to push back against Team Sheeper's determination. David Levinson, who has been swimming with Rinconada Masters for 40 years and credits the program with turning him into an eight-time masters champion, called on the commission to "not abandon us swimmers."
"The Parks and Recreation Commission needs to decide whether to hire Team Sheeper to serve the swimmers of Palo Alto's programs or whether the members of the commission believe that we swimmers exist to serve Team Sheeper," said Levinson, one of more than a dozen swimmers who asked the commission for support.
Several members of the group also took their pleas to the City Council Monday night -- among them Carol Macpherson, coach of Rinconada Masters. The team, she told the council, welcomes both competitive swimmers and those who just want to swim to stay fit, to improve their strokes or to learn how to swim.
On Tuesday, Macpherson said she hopes the group can still work out a deal with Team Sheeper. The problems Team Sheeper had identified are solvable, she said. Though she did not dispute staff's finding that the group didn't always have two lifeguards on duty, Macpherson maintained that there was always at least one lifeguard. The lap swimming program, she added, also often uses just one lifeguard, she said.
"To say we never had any lifeguards on the deck is very incorrect," Macpherson said.
The commission agreed that the lifeguard problem has a fairly simple solution: the hiring of more lifeguards. But now, there seems to be a bigger issue between Team Sheeper and Rinconada Masters: growing mistrust. LeBlanc said that Team Sheeper has indicated that it doesn't have the confidence that the team will have as many lifeguards as it needs.
She said Team Sheeper also complained that the environment at Rinconada is "not always respectful" between the different groups, another reason for its determination not to renew the contract.
LeBlanc also noted that while oversight of the masters program is set to change under the proposed terms, the masters program itself is not going away. In fact, under the proposed Sheeper agreement, just about every Rinconada program will remain in place, with very few changes.
"Everyone who is in master swimming is absolutely welcome to continue being a master swimmer," she said. "I know it doesn't necessarily feel the same to every participant (to have a different management), but there is the same masters programming at the same time and almost the same exact pricing."
The commission largely sympathized with the speakers, with Commissioner David Moss calling the swim club "a city treasure" with a "national reputation." His biggest concern, he said, was over transparency. Though the city has been going through the bid process for a long-term pool operator since July, the Rinconada Masters didn't learn about the decision not to renew their contract until Oct. 16.
"It's the blind-siding that I find disturbing," Moss said.
He and his colleagues also took issue with the bidding process, which resulted in only one bid -- from Team Sheeper. LeBlanc said other operators were turned off by a provision that allows the city to approve or reject changes to the pool schedule. If the city were to reject Team Sheeper's bid, it might have to stop or suspend all aquatics programming because of insufficient pool oversight, she said.
"It's not ideal to walk away from this," LeBlanc said. "We would certainly do this if it looked like it would cause a problem."
While no one on the commission supported dropping Team Sheeper's bid, Commission Chairman Don McDougall said the outpouring of concern from the Rinconada Masters should change how the city negotiates with Team Sheeper as it finalizes its agreement. The biggest issue, he said, is broken trust. Solving it will require collaboration from the city, the pool operator and the various users of Rinconada Pool, which he called a "scarce and valuable resource."
"We have to find a way together. ... This message of trust needs to be passed on to our contractor," McDougall said.