Update: PAL has announced it has a new management team and the necessary insurance to reopen the City’s BMX track on May 31. However, it will not divulge who the team is or if it has received a sanction from USA BMX. For complete details, please read this article.
Few people in Santa Clara — if anybody — would dispute the importance of publicly available recreational activities, often called “public amenities.” The topic rears its head almost any time a new development is slated to come online.
The Santa Clara City Council has often put pressure on developers to include more than the bare minimum public amenities, often with much success. Whether it is parks, soccer fields or bowling alleys, Santa Clara is big on recreational activities for its citizens.
So, naturally, you might think that when behemoth developer, Related, informed the Council their new project would displace a local BMX track, the Council put its foot down and told Related the City would not sacrifice such a valued public amenity.
Only the Council never did that.
Now, strife between the track operator and its management has caused the track to close even before the Related development forces the track to relocate or, possibly, be eliminated. Unless something changes, it could stay that way.
The organization that sanctions tracks, USA BMX, ranks Santa Clara’s BMX track the top in the nation. The Police Activities League (PAL) manages the track, and a team of volunteers operates it. Unlike many public amenities such as parks or soccer fields, the track turns a steady profit, generating roughly $250,000 a year. The track’s revenue funds a large swath of PAL’s programs despite the organization’s minimal involvement.
“For them not doing much, it is a pretty sweet deal,” said Nicholas Valencia, the track’s operator until PAL “relieved” him of his duties last month.
Valencia said PAL recently began looking for another operator after its board became dissatisfied, alleging that he and his team had engaged in “financial mismanagement.” PAL even went so far as to install video cameras at the track, something Valencia said left the volunteers feeling as if they were under a microscope despite having done nothing wrong.
They seem to be looking for a “smoking gun,” he added. As a result, Valencia resigned all financial duties, but that wasn’t enough for PAL.
“They never made an outright accusation, they just painted several scenarios…if you are not going to make a true accusation, just piss off,” Valencia said. “There is definitely something weird going on. If a program is grossing $250,000 a year, you don’t go looking for problems.”
At a City Council meeting on April 15, Mike Walke, PAL’s president, pointed to PayPal transactions for clinics and camps that had gone unreported to PAL. Despite the accusation, Walke offered little else in the way of explanation.
In an email, Walke wrote that PAL had no comment, but PAL issued a statement on social media where it vowed to perform an audit and that it is “in the process of making a new governance structure.”
Although the money from clinics and camps goes into his pocket, Valencia said he often invests it in the track. Further, the clinics and camps were on the up-and-up, and previous PAL president, Rod Martinez, had no issue with them. In an email, Martinez told the PAL board as much.
“Back when I was running PAL, the BMX crew and I had a verbal agreement that [Valencia] and the other volunteers at the track could do private instruction/camps as a way to fundraise [sic] for your race teams or track improvements as a way of us showing appreciation for the efforts that you and the other volunteers put in throughout each and every year,” Martinez wrote.
The email continues: “As far as private instruction, some of our softball coaches gave private pitching or hitting lessons[,] and they kept the money for themselves. I didn’t believe that private BMX instruction was any different.”
In addition to ratifying the handshake agreement, in the email Martinez glows about Valencia’s management, saying the track “looks amazing” and that he doesn’t believe “the board realizes what the volunteers have done for the track.”
Valencia and his crew aren’t just well regarded by Martinez. At several Santa Clara Council meetings over the past couple months, dozens of parents sang the praises of the volunteers. Nobody said anything negative.
Christin Marron has three children — ages 4, 5 and 7 — whose lives have “revolved around the track since COVID.” Professionally, she investigates crimes against children.
“It takes me a lot to trust people,” she said. “I trust Nick with my kids, and that speaks to his character.”
Many of the public speakers who spoke at the Council meetings emphasized how important the track is to their families, something Marron echoed. She said to lose it because of, what she calls, a “personal vendetta” would be a tragedy.
“There is not a lot of things a family can do together…That bonding time is so important,” she said. “My kids are losing their skills. They are not able to stay competitive as when we had a track. This is their joy.”
Although PAL and USA BMX, were able to reach an agreement for nationals in March, track operations have since ceased. Parents interviewed for this story and many comments at the Council meetings lay the blame at PAL’s feet.
USA BMX will not sanction the track without Valencia and his team as operators, and PAL does not have the proper insurance to operate the track without the sanction.
“The PAL board doesn’t have a good grasp of how the sport of BMX works. If they really took the time to learn…it would make the process go a lot easier,” Marron said.
Many parents and track users were in an uproar when PAL officials announced, without warning, that it was getting rid of the volunteers.
As is all too common, the issue at hand seems to be money. PAL collects half of the $10 each rider pays to use the track. USA BMX accepted a deal through the nationals because of the event’s magnitude, Valencia said, but refused to take over operation of the track unless PAL budges on its share of that fee.
Cassandra Caron’s kids also use the track. She attended the meeting where PAL announced it would be axing the volunteers. She was furious. She called PAL’s lack of willingness to accept less money “appalling,” saying it is “irresponsible, greedy and goes against their mission statement.”
“They provide nothing. They do nothing,” she said. “They are not enhancing the BMX program in any way — they are not doing track maintenance. They are not coaching.”
Rob Carnahan operates Calabazas Cyclery. He said the volunteers “work their butts off,” saying they are “the best people I have ever met.”
“Every person that I have ever sent to that track to be coached…has come back with a positive attitude,” Carnahan said. “Having it organized and having people out there that care really makes a difference.”
For a while, it appeared as if PAL and USA BMX would reach an agreement. During the April Council meeting where Valencia implored the Council to intercede and sever the volunteers’ tie with PAL, Walke told the Council PAL was still negotiating with USA BMX.
However, Justin Travis, a representative for USA BMX, said discussions with PAL are over, adding that PAL did not disclose the dismissal of Valencia and the other volunteers when they were in negotiations.
“It financially supports other recreational programs and is the benchmark for every other program in the country,” Travis told the Council. “Your City should be nothing less than proud of what has been accomplished by the volunteer group that the PAL board recently relieved of their duties.”
An Un-Related Matter
The situation with the Related development further complicates matters. Although the City has the ground lease for the track, its employees are uninvolved in its management. The development agreement requires that Santa Clara work with Related in a “good faith effort” to relocate the track.
In an email, Evette Davis, with Berg Davis, a public relations firm handling Related’s PR, wrote that “… reasonable faith efforts were made during the first two years after the agreement’s effective date, as required. The City did not relocate the BMX track during this period.”
Should the Council do nothing to relocate the track, Related is under no obligation to do so once it assumes responsibility for the land, meaning one of Santa Clara’s biggest public amenities would suddenly die.
“We should have been talking about it three years ago,” Council Member Suds Jain said about relocating the track. “[The City has] the crappiest deal with Related — they locked up our land for 10 or 15 years, and they don’t pay us a dime for it until they start developing.”
Perhaps the biggest problem in finding another place for the track is the City’s lack of available space for such a large attraction. But Jain said he actually sees the fanfare surrounding Valencia and the volunteers as a hindrance.
“If it is so dependent on two or three people, what happens afterward?” Jain said. “They don’t have a succession plan.”
Because of the bad blood between volunteers and PAL, Valencia took the matter to the City Council. He implored the Council to intercede, perhaps taking over the management of the track, cutting PAL out of the equation. The Council unanimously passed the public petition to put the item on a future agenda.
During discussion, Jain directed City employees to look at the financial audit PAL vowed to produce. Valencia said he was intrigued as to what that audit will reveal because he claims PAL does no bookkeeping.
PAL’s finance and accountability score sits at 100 out of 100, according to charitynavigator.org, but lists “N/A” under independent audit or financial review. Its leadership and adaptability are not scored.
Calls to the City’s PR director, Lon Peterson, requesting interviews with sources at City Hall proved fruitless.
Vice Mayor Raj Chahal said the track is an invaluable asset because it provides an avenue for exercise, something he values very much. Since the track is likely to get eliminated once Phase 5 of Related Santa Clara comes online, he said the operators, USA BMX and PAL should come together in the meantime to reach an amenable agreement.
He worries that the track will go away and wants to see it stay open as long as possible. A diagnosis as to the best course of action is only possible when all the facts are known and the parties have been given ample time to reach an agreement.
However, if push comes to shove, Chahal said he will do what is in the best interest of the public — preserving the track. If that means the Council has to exercise its authority, so be it.
Jain said he was “disappointed [Walke] was not forthcoming” regarding the status of negotiations with USA BMX. He called the track a “cash cow,” adding that PAL’s stance on how much of the rider fee it collects is unreasonable since it collects nothing if the track is closed. He is not optimistic a solution between the two parties is on the horizon.
“It has gotten to a point where there is so much bad blood that the Council has to intervene. They are never going to reach a deal,” Jain said.
The topic returns to the Santa Clara City Council May 24.