Originally posted at www.foxandhoundsdaily.com

Sometimes the local government staff I have the great pleasure of working with say the darndest things.  Prior to giving a speech on civic participation for a group of city and county employees just north of San Francisco, I chatted with a county volunteer coordinator about her job. “It sounds like fascinating work,” I offered, “you must interact with a lot of different people on a variety of projects.”

She responded affirmatively, “but,” as she demurred to a near whisper, “you have to be real careful that when you bring in a volunteer to help on certain jobs, that you don’t take work from unionized employees.” She explained her formula for placing volunteers in needed assignments had to prefigure the type of work and time commitment. “I usually have no problem [with the unions] bringing someone in for a couple hours each week,” she allowed, “but I’m pushing it if it moves beyond five hours – even if the volunteer is willing to take longer hours.”  She concluded by saying, “and, of course, you’ve heard what’s happening in Petaluma with the school district?”

Well, of course, I hadn’t.

Petaluma is one of the several idyllic small cities (pop. 58,000) that dot Route 101 on the way north from the Golden Gate Bridge through the Wine Country. Serving as the setting for over a dozen movies from American Graffiti to Pleasantville, most have seen the town without realizing it.  Like most municipalities in the state, though, the current fiscal crisis has made delivering public services – from education to public safety – anything but pleasant.

The Petaluma City Schools district has trimmed millions from its budget over the last two years, as the deficit-ridden State Government has decreased its local support by 25 percent. The cuts have meant laying off district employees at all levels – from teachers to playground supervisors. In response, parents and concerned Petalumans have stepped forward to try to fill these gaps, volunteering their time to maintain school services. But since the non-teaching positions are unionized by the California School Employees’ Association (CSEA), this, of course, is when the problems started.

As reported by the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, when volunteers began to help answer phones in the office, and support the school librarian at Petaluma Junior High School, CSEA President, Loretta Kruusmagi decided enough was enough. To read the quotations triangulated between the parent volunteers, school district, and union, is to gain insight into a public sector union’s fundamental incapability to respond to the “new normal” in local governments where, as New York’s Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith has described, “The steady increase in the quantity and cost of public services, coupled with the needs of an aging population and public pension costs have produced a long term, structural deficit.” The clash in Petaluma also highlights the natural impediments public sector unions can become when citizens attempt to sacrifice their time to support the delivery of public services when budgets are ravaged.

Representing 350 clerical and janitorial staff in the Petaluma school district, Kruusmagi does not betray the least concern for the “kids” as she glowers, “Noon-duty people – those are instructional assistants. We had all those positions. We don’t have them anymore, but those are our positions. Our stand is you can’t have volunteers, they can’t do our work.” The possessive tone taken by Kruusmagi composes a new understanding of “public servant”.

Caught between the volunteers and the union, district leadership is forced into an Orwellian role as referee – seeking to pacify the CSEA and parents, while important positions that could be taken by local residents remain unfilled because of the budget cuts. Deputy Superintendent Steve Bolman is left to quote from the union contract and labor law: “It’s not policy, this is law. [Volunteers] can’t do work ‘usually, ordinarily or regularly done by classified employees.'”   For her part, Kruusmagi, sounds a little sketchier on the legalities: “I can’t cite the exact thing, but there are state rules. I believe it’s in (education) code that volunteers are not allowed at schools.”

The volunteers are rightly furious. Cathy Edmondson, the parent of a Petaluma Junior High student, and a volunteer who helps around the school office, retorted, “I guess the anger that I feel about it is even though the union has contractual rights to what goes on, they don’t have the right to abridge my rights as a parent, volunteer and taxpayer.”  Indeed.  Lynn King, another parent, and manager of the volunteer program has a slightly more diplomatic take: “Schools are losing personnel because of budgetary cutbacks, kids are being underserved by these budgetary cutbacks, so we are trying to do what we can.”

The parties in Petaluma seem to indicate that some sort of agreement can be reached that will actually allow continued civic participation, but when Kruusmagi is quoted as saying flatly, “They are not going to have volunteers at all,” one wonders.

Since the nation’s Founding, the work of volunteers in providing and supporting local services has been a hallmark of what it means to be an American citizen, described most famously, by the French visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville: “In America I encountered all sorts of associations of which, I confess, I had no idea, and I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely (emphasis mine).”  Obviously Monsieur Tocqueville never met Ms. Kruusmagi.

Tocqueville’s commentary on America’s civic participation was based on both our natural habits and contextual necessity: there simply weren’t governing structures to deliver many needed public services back in the 1830s, so Americans had to “fall back upon themselves.” As local government budgets creak under the weight of the “new normal”, we are beginning to see this “[falling] back” happening again throughout the country. For public sector union leaders the question will be: are you part of the solution, or part of the problem?

Pete Peterson is Executive Director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy.