News - September 28, 2011

Pool user group selection, using closed process, ruffles the waters

Editor's Note: As the Almanac went to press on Sept. 26, Recreation Services Manager Katrina Whiteaker said the city has now added more options for general pool users to be included in the Aquatics Users Group. Fliers were posted at Burgess Pool and the city posted a request for volunteers on its Twitter account. Interested residents should submit their request to Ms. Whiteaker before Oct. 10. Contact her at 330-2208 or kmwhiteaker@menlopark.lrg

By Sandy Brundage

The city's way of selecting commissioners has its drawbacks — for starters, volunteers are scarce for the less glamorous posts — but has the advantage of public transparency. Not so for the way Menlo Park decided to choose members of the aquatics users group, a panel charged with providing annual reports on customer satisfaction among those using the city's swimming pools.

Team Sheeper, which won a contract to privately manage the city's public pools, first selected possible members from each subgroup of swimmers, such as lap swimmers and participants in the Sheeper-sponsored Masters program, and provided those names to the city, which will make the final determination. SOLO, a nonprofit youth program that also uses the pool, was asked to choose its own representative. Forming the users group is required under the terms of the new contract.

The size of the users group has yet to be finalized, according to Cherise Brandell, community services director.

Recreation Services Manager Katrina Whiteaker said that personal contact with the contractor instead of advertising the positions to the public seemed more likely to lead to volunteers who were really willing to serve. "The self-elected representative may not be enough of a 'regular user' of the pool in order to interview other sub-group members or gather sufficient feedback from other users," she said, adding that unlike a commission, the users group is meant to provide customer feedback, not governance.

Although the Parks and Recreation Commission unanimously approved the process on Sept. 21, the methodology still troubles some swimmers.

"It has been my observation that Advisory Boards morph from sounding boards into echo chambers when the management — rather than users — selects its members," Erin Glanville wrote in an email to the City Council.

Drawing on her professional background working with user groups, she said, "To use an analogy, if my relationship with the owner of a restaurant motivates him or her to ask that I serve on a panel reviewing the quality of that restaurant's overall service, I may be reluctant to mention that I don't really like the food and have had problems with poor service."

Ms. Glanville volunteers with SOLO, but emphasized that she was speaking independently of the group.

Concerns about transparency have dogged the city's handling of the pools since it first elected to turn over management to a private contractor five 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.

The contract's renewal did go through a formal bid process earlier this year that culminated in a revised agreement with Team Sheeper. The contract requires Team Sheeper to pay $3,000 a month to lease the Burgess pools; be responsible for all operating costs; and operate the Belle Haven pools for at least three months a year.

It was not untroubled waters, however; halfway through the bid evaluation the city changed the process without notifying the public or the Parks and Recreation Commission. When requesting proposals in August, staff members initially said they would present their recommended choice of provider to the City Council and let the council decide whether to start negotiations. But negotiations started in December without involving the council.


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