There's trouble in paradise.
At Woodside's historic Filoli estate, many of the 1,300 volunteers, who do everything from selling tickets to building the trails used for nature hikes, have expressed anger and dismay over an agreement that Filoli says they must sign by March 1 or lose their volunteer jobs.
It appears that hundreds of volunteers may choose to quit rather than sign an agreement that would release Filoli from liability for injury or other damages that volunteers may incur while doing work there.
An email from Filoli management on Feb. 13 says only 600 volunteers had signed the agreement at that point.
The part of the agreement that volunteers say is the most objectionable is a "release and indemnification" that states the volunteers "will not make a claim of any negligence, personal injury, wrongful death or property damage against Filoli and its employees, officers and agents" for anything that happens while volunteering.
The agreement also says: "I understand that I will be responsible for medical costs incurred by accident, illness or injury associated with my services to Filoli."
Filoli management, including Executive Director Cynthia D'Agosta and Filoli's head of public relations Christina Syrett, have declined to comment on the controversy. Friends of Filoli president Heidi Brown had said she would speak to the Almanac after a Feb. 18 board meeting; but following the meeting said she was not yet "in a position to share information."
Volunteers say that this is the first time since the Friends of Filoli was formed in 1978 that they have been told they must sign a volunteer agreement.
"I'm not resigning. They're firing me," said Menlo Park resident Hal Tennant, the head of Filoli's Bandana Brigade, which builds and maintains Filoli's nature trails and has designed and built arbors, stone walls and bridges for the estate. Mr. Tennant, who with his wife Jeane has volunteered at Filoli for more than 15 years, said every one of the dozen members of the Bandana Brigade will be gone as of March 1 unless Filoli backs down from requiring them to sign the agreement.
The document that has caused so much consternation among Filoli volunteers, many of whom have volunteered at the National Trust for Historic Preservation site for decades, is a one-page agreement that volunteers say they first received six days before Christmas.
Susan Crocker, a former Woodside mayor who has been volunteering to lead school groups on nature hikes at Filoli for a decade, said "at the root of this possible mass resignation is an ill-drafted, one-sided and burdensome agreement which seems to remove Filoli from all responsibility if there is an injury to either the children or the volunteers."
Like many others, Ms. Crocker said, she called her lawyer "and was advised to not sign the agreement. I talked with my insurance company and was told they will not cover any injury" under the agreement.
Many volunteers say they also object to two other parts of the agreement. One says that Filoli can "publish any photos in which I appear while volunteering for Filoli." The other says the agreement "is executed voluntarily and without any duress or undue influence."
"That volunteers are under duress is an understatement -- sign or you are out," said Clare Gardella, who has been a Filoli volunteer for more than 20 years, including serving as president of the Friends of Filoli in 2002 and 2003.
"Many of us are heeding the advice of our attorneys and not signing," said Ms. Gardella, a resident of San Carlos. "It is also causing many of us to make changes in our wills and memberships."
A Portola Valley volunteer, who asked that her name not be used "because I am a bit of a privacy freak," said the unhappiness stems from more than the wording of the agreement.
"The volunteers' hesitancy to sign the (agreement) started out as a reaction to the language and intent" of the document, she said, "but I believe it has grown and snowballed into something else.
"Because Filoli management has not been responsive to our concerns, the relationship has begun to feel less like a partnership and more like a dictatorship," the volunteer, who has been at Filoli for six years, said.
Nina Bell, a Palo Alto resident who has volunteered for Filoli for 12 years, said she has been "extremely distressed by the way the executive administration has handled the roll-out of this onerous, one-sided volunteer agreement. This experience has destroyed good will and has severely impacted the Filoli culture," she said.
Ms. Bell said that "it is way too late to ensure this process is smooth, accurate, or respectful." Filoli volunteers have, she said, been trying for three months to work with management "to avoid the mess in which we now find ourselves. All efforts have fallen on deaf ears," she said.
Volunteers say they have been asking questions about the volunteer agreement since it was first presented in November, but have received few answers.
Some of the answers volunteers have received seem to contradict the agreement. A Jan. 30 email to volunteers from Ms. Brown and Ms. D'Agosta says:
● "Filoli volunteers, members and visitors are all covered under a robust general liability policy."
● "We also carry a separate insurance policy for volunteer accidental medical coverage."
In response, volunteer Ms. Bell wrote back: "If the Executive administration could take what you SAY and have it reflected in what is actually WRITTEN in the (agreement), everyone would probably sign it."
Mr. Tennant said he and his fellow Bandana Brigade volunteers face the risk of injury due to their use of dangerous equipment, owned by Filoli, such as chain saws and "a wonderful 1974 Chevy pickup that has questionable brakes." Their work building bridges, stone walls and walks exposes them to a lot of potential liability, they say.
"You don't think about a lot of those things until the lawyers get involved and then it spoils a lot of your fun," he said.
If the volunteers are forced to leave on March 1, he said, "it's a disaster. That place, it's going to implode."
Other volunteers equate the current situation to a marriage gone bad. The Portola Valley volunteer who does not want her name used said that she feels as if a member of Filoli's management team has "taken something that was working quite well and has destroyed its fabric. I've never been divorced," she said, "but I can see that this situation has some similarities."
Several volunteers said that even if the volunteer agreement is revised they may leave Filoli. "Now Filoli has lost my trust -- who knows what they will do next," the volunteer said.
Valorie Boucher, who is in her 15th year as a Filoli volunteer, and who with her husband Rod drives 80 miles round-trip from their home in South San Jose to volunteer at Filoli, tells new volunteers whom she trains that the love of Filoli "is contagious and there's no inoculation." When she volunteers at Filoli, she said, "it's like I just go into another peaceful world."
No longer. "That's been broken," she said.
Kathie Shaw, a Filoli volunteer for 18 years and president of the Friends of Filoli in 2004 and 2005, said that she was told by Filoli volunteer leaders that "new volunteers would be available to step in for those choosing to leave."
Ms. Shaw, a resident of Menlo Park, said "this shows no respect for seasoned, experienced volunteers who have given freely of time and talents for many years. Unfortunately this attitude on the part of the administration has caused a wide divide among the volunteers."
Ms. Shaw said that Filoli's success has been based on "the partnership between the volunteers and the staff. We have worked side by side to meet the goals set forth in Filoli's strategic plan."
Things, she said, have changed. "We are no longer equal partners. Many of us will choose to leave as a result," she said.
"I am hopeful that there may be a last-minute breakthrough," Ms. Shaw said, "but I will not hold my breath."
Filoli, located on Canada Road a few miles north of Woodside, was originally built by William Bowers Bourn II and Agnes Moody Bourn. The Bourns built their country home between 1915 and 1917 and established the garden between 1917 and 1929.
When Mr. and Mrs. Bourn both died in 1936, the property was sold to William P. and Lurline Matson Roth.
The Roth family donated Filoli to the National Trust for Historic Preservation (the house and gardens) and the Filoli Center (the remaining acreage) in 1975, and it opened to the public in 1976.
In a January interview, Executive Director Ms. D'Agosta said Filoli has 1,300 volunteers, 60 employees and a $7 million annual budget and has 120,000 visitors a year in the nine months it is open.