Dissension among Capitol tour guides

The blue-clad Capitol tour guides are a smiling, friendly bunch. But some say there is trouble under the dome.

Several guides report that their ranks are so understaffed they regularly cancel scheduled public tours — particularly when legislators have VIPs in town. The State Parks Department, which oversees the guides, denies these claims and says any staffing problems have been caused by “normal attrition.”

Meanwhile, a petite guide in her 60s was escorted out of the Capitol recently by California Highway Patrol officers, then slapped with a restraining order for allegedly threatening violence. She denied the allegation. The order requires her to stay at least 100 yards from the Capitol and bars her from approaching her former supervisor.

Capitol Weekly has spoken with two current guides, each of whom said the understaffed guides have been forced to give priority to providing tours to groups associated with politicians rather than to the public. They also said that volunteers and part-time employees were being thrown into leading tours before they were fully prepared. All the guides spoke only on condition of anonymity.

The Parks Department acknowledged that the Capitol has been short by about five in recent months. The department current has 19 full-time people, said Catherine Taylor, superintendant of the Parks’ Capital District. She said this includes eight guides, two supervisors, as well as people who design exhibits and do technical work.

The staff also includes a dozen permanent intermittent employees, who work up to 1,500 hours a year. Some of these “PIs” lead tours, as do 10 to 12 volunteers, Taylor said. All guides go through the same six week training, she said, regardless of their employment status.

“I don’t think there are any cutbacks going on in the Capitol Museum,” said Roy Stearns, a spokesman for the Parks Department, which oversees the Capitol Museum. He also said they have not gotten any “angry feedback” from members of the public who couldn’t get tours. The tour guides are part of the museum staff.

Stearns said the department has been advertising five permanent jobs, two full-time and three intermittent. Three new guides are scheduled to start training next week, he said, which would bring the department nearly back to 2008 employment levels.

“We in government are operating under some pretty horrendous cuts,” Stearns said, forcing staff furloughs and slowing down the process of filling open jobs.

The Capitol tour guides lead both public and private tours, and staff the Capitol Museum rooms during most business hours. The guides are supposed to offer free, hour-long public tours, every hour on the hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Parks records show that 468,893 people took Capitol tours last year.

But records show that on May 28, there were only five public tours. Two of these were led by volunteers, not by paid guides.

That same day, there were seven VIP tours. The “Daily Tour Sheet” for April 16 showed that five of eight tours were cancelled that day due to lack of staff.

An April 29 schedule showed only two public tours. But a schedule of private VIP tours showed 11 on April 29, including one conducted in Spanish. Ten of these had the name of the legislator who requested the tour — seven by Democrats, three by Republicans — while the other was attributed to the “Chief Clerk.”

Four of these tours were for school groups. One group was listed as “Assemblyman Portantino-wife and friends,” while another was recorded as “Senator Walters-Lions Club,” references to Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena, and Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Tustin.  According to guides, it can be difficult for groups to get a tour without getting help from a legislator.

“Legislators can call and ask for a VIP tour,” Stearns said. “Often that is [for] constituents from the district or schoolchildren.”

He added: “We might bump the public tour by a half hour so we can do both of them, but we try to get them all done.”

Group tours can be arranged through ReserveAmerica, a website that allows people to book tickets and camping spots at state parks around the country. A call to ReserveAmerica showed that there were six available slots for school groups in the next two weeks.

“Volunteers are used widely throughout the system,” said Jerry Emory, a spokesman for the California State Parks Foundation, a non-profit which advocates for state parks. The group is not involved with the tour guides’ dispute, though he added, “I know with the furloughs, there is tension everywhere.”

The guides are part of the Parks Department’s Capital District, which also includes the California State Railroad Museum, Old Sacramento, Sutter’s Fort, the State Indian Museum, the Governor’s and Leland Stanford Mansions, the Railtown Museum in Jamestown and the Woodland Opera House. All of these sites combined had 1.1 million visitors in 2008. Volunteers provided 125,000 hours of work across the district last year, Taylor said, the equivalent of almost 63 full-time employees.

“We have a lot of volunteers in this district,” Taylor said. “We could not run if we didn’t have their energy and commitment.”  

Guides have alleged the budget has been taken from Capitol operations to help keep these other facilities going, something Stearns denied. The Capital District has an annual budget of $900,000. Stearns said his department has been using staff from Sutter’s Fort, the Stanford Mansion and the Governor’s Mansion to help fill in at the Capitol.

Overall, the parks system has been hit hard by state budget cuts.

In last year’s budget, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed to entirely eliminate funding and close 220 parks, leaving open only 20 percent of state parks. A public outcry forced him to shelf this plan, but the Parks Foundation estimates that budget cuts, furloughs and other issues forced $40 million in cuts. In the current budget year, the governor proposed to leave park funding intact, but the Legislative Analysts’ Office recommended $22 million in cuts, reducing the total parks budget to $118 million.

On April 15, a longtime tour guide was escorted out by the CHP and put on leave. According to the restraining order filled the next day by the Attorney General’s office, the order was filed for the protection of a supervisor. The guide in question is in her early 60s and was listed as under five feet tall and weighed about 100 pounds. The order specifies that she must stay at least 100 yards away from both the Capitol and the supervisor in question. The guide allegedly had threatened two supervisors.

According to the supervisors’ testimony recorded in the order, the “defendant’s psychiatrist” contacted a supervisor with concerns about the woman’s behavior on April 6 after she went off of medication for manic depression. After being put on medical leave until May 1, the supervisor said, the guide showed up at the Capitol three times over the next week.
This allegedly culminated in the April 15 incident, where the guide allegedly said “things are going to get rough” and that she was going to set two supervisors’ “asses on fire.”

The former guide in question denied all of the allegations printed in the restraining order, calling them “not true” and “silly.” She said that she was being harassed because she spoke up about problems in the department.

On April 20, an email went out to the department’s staff warning “if any
one receives a request from a reporter for information on our Museum, please do not answer any questions. Refer the caller to a supervisor.”

Stearns said the matter was a “personnel issue” that he could not speak about on the record. A spokesman with the Office of Capitol Protection said only that they didn’t arrest the guide in question, and that it was a “personnel matter” to be handled by the Parks Department.

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