Not all the guests at the Tulare Public Cemetery are resting in peace. The recent appointment of two new board members and a group called Caring Cause has changed the atmosphere from “business as usual” to one of change, and some would say, of contention.
Elaine Hollingsworth grew up in Tulare and started the Facebook site Caring Cause – Stop Neglect at Tulare Public Cemetery District.
“My concerns for the cemetery actually started long before I started Caring Cause,” she said. “Each time I went to the [Kern street] cemetery I’d think to myself ‘My God, why don’t the people in this town do something about the conditions at the cemetery, it’s deplorable.’”
Tulare Public Cemetery consists of two sections, the older section on Kern Street and the North Cemetery on J Street. The grounds at the North Cemetery turned brown because the well went out, but those problems seem mostly resolved.
Hollingsworth, and about a dozen followers of Caring Cause, have been going to board meetings and voicing their concerns about the finances and maintenance at the Kern Cemetery.
At first glance the Kern Cemetery looks green. But on closer inspection the ground is covered in weeds interspersed with large patches of dirt. People visiting their loved ones have reported caved in plots and sinking grave stones. They have also complained to the staff about grave markers cracked in half and broken cement around the graves due to the carelessness of the cemetery’s staff.
In terms of finances, the two new board members, Phillip Deal and Vicki Gilson, question the wisdom of paying $15,000 a month to contract out the ground’s maintenance.
Members of Caring Cause, Deal and Gilson feel that with seven fulltime, full benefit employees they should be able maintain the grounds themselves. They contend several employees are too disabled or sick to physically do the maintenance work and need to be replaced with those who can.
After a year of going to the board meetings and seeing little change Hollingsworth came to the conclusion that the board was just giving her “lip service.”
“They have had a year to get things rectified and now I’m coming after them full force. Enough is enough!”
“He is a Bit of a Loose Cannon”
Caring Cause and the new board members have also pointed out problems with the nuts and bolts of running a public agency, such as Brown Act violations, and the absence of an employee handbook or a Public Cemetery Operational Manual.
Another problem in moving the cemetery forward is a constant 3-2 split vote on each issue.
According to Deal, whether it’s maintenance or a personnel issue, the vote is always the three old board members, Phil Vandegrift, Toni Chavez and Patricia Colson, against the two new board members.
“Every time we tried to get things done we were voted down,” said Deal.
But the biggest obstacle is the tension between the two squabbling sides.
During the July 12 Tulare Public Cemetery Board meeting, Alberto Aguilar, whose issue was part of the agenda, was in the middle of his presentation when Vandegrift became increasingly agitated.
Vandegrift said, “I’m outta here” and left the meeting followed by board member Chavez.
According to Marilyn Correia, the office manager, the comments got so vicious it made her physically ill and she left the room shaking.
She said some of them were so bad she could have sued for slander.
Colson, the Board president, agreed, saying some of the pubic were being too aggressive and the two new board members were too pushy.
Deal said that Chavez and Vandegrift really walked out of the meeting because they “don’t like to listen to the public.”
Both sides claimed that the other was “very rude.”
After 10 minutes Chavez and Vandegrift realized they had better return because the three remaining board members had a quorum to continue making decisions. According to Deal, when Vandegrift came back into the room Deal was looking down at his paperwork and was completely caught off guard by what happened next.
“Phil Vandegrift had his nose about three inches from my face and just berated me. He was yelling so loud and was so vehement that I honestly couldn’t even tell you what he said,” Deal said. “It took me a couple of seconds to realize what was happening when I told him to get out of my face and to never use that manner with me again.”
“He was very threatening, and wholly unprofessional.”
Gilson would only say about Vandegrift that “he is just a very angry man.”
Aguilar, a longtime and active Tulare resident, said that this was not an isolated incident with Vandegrift and claims he was known to have anger management issues.
Vandegrift is a former city council member and Mayor of Tulare.
In October of 2011, he stepped down Tulare’s vice-mayor as part of a settlement agreement of three lawsuits levied against the city and two council members alleging violations of California election laws, the Brown Act and the Public Records Act.
As part of the lawsuit settlement agreement, Vandegrift resigned but did not admit any wrong doing.
Her Mother was Buried in the Wrong Plot
Mary Lou Ojeda and her mother, Janice Ojeda, were best friends. So when Janice passed away on April 5, Mary Lou welcomed the help of her niece and father when it came time to pick out a gravesite. Her dad would eventually be joining his wife so he chose a location three spaces from a large tree so he would be in the shade.
But after her funeral services, when Janice Ojeda’s casket arrived at the cemetery, Mary Lou knew immediately it was the wrong grave. The plot was in the opposite location from what they had chosen and directly in the sun.
When Ojeda saw an older maintenance man on a golf cart she stopped him and said they opened the wrong grave.
Ojeda told the man that while cemetery employee, Gerardo Ramos, was helping them choose the site he was also taking care of his grandson and taking cell phone calls and must have been distracted.
Ojeda had the paperwork with the correct plot number and confirmed payment of approximately $3000 for a double space.
The maintenance man driving the cart insisted that she was mistaken and that she and her family chose the plot that was currently open. He spent so long arguing with Ojeda that she missed half of the graveside service.
Then after about 15 minutes, before the service was done, he told everyone they had to leave.
Ojeda said the man was so rude she felt sick to her stomach.
After many phone calls, letters and several board meetings, the cemetery agreed to give Ojeda a full refund.
Their reason for the mix-up was that Ramos has severe diabetes and that his blood sugar was high that day.
Ojeda at first considered not fighting, but then just wanted her money back because she wanted to make sure this didn’t happen to another family.
“It’s just an experience that I would not want to happen to anyone else.”
More Experienced Voices Respond
Correia has been working for the Tulare Public Cemetery since 1996. Patricia Colson has been on the board since 2005 and serves as chairwoman.
They both agree that new blood always brings a fresh perspective on how to solve problems, but they don’t agree with how Caring Cause or the two new board members go about it.
Colson acknowledged the mistake made on the Ojeda plot and knows that Ramos has to go.
But she says that the two new board members don’t realize that the old board has been working on this issue for six months.
She explained that with all the necessary documentation and rules it’s very difficult to fire a longtime employee without possible consequences to the district.
As for Correia, she is close to retirement age but not quite yet ready. And Colson isn’t looking forward to trying to find someone with Correia’s institutional knowledge of how to run a cemetery.
“At what we pay her, she will be very difficult to replace.”
Colson added that Correia “is always doing research on the current rules and regulations and going to conferences each year to keep up on ay new codes and staying informed on what other public cemeteries are dealing with.”
What other public cemeteries around the state are dealing with is the same as in Tulare – a reduction in the number of burials.
This results in a reduction of revenue. While Tulare Public Cemetery gets some of their revenue from property taxes, farm income, and interests from an endowment fund, about 80% of their revenue comes from burials, meaning it’s not a set amount.
“More people are getting cremated and their families are taking the ashes home or spreading them around which is illegal, but they are doing it,” said Correia.
Even when a family decides to inter the ashes in a niche it brings in a fraction of the revenue as a regular burial.
July was a particularly bad month for burials resulting in the cemetery’s expenditures being more than revenue.
“We are not perfect, but we don’t have the budget to be perfect,” said Correia.
Despite this, Colson had a list of solid accomplishments done by the board, some of which were: building a community crypt for those who can’t afford a plot, a hexagon niche for cremations, resurfaced roads, and new sprinklers.
Also on the advice of the newcomers, Correia will be submitting a bid by AT&T at the next meeting to get cell phones for the staff and internet in the office.
Currently the office has only one landline, does most of its business by snail mail, and is closed from noon to 1:30pm.
Notices of the meetings are posted on the cemetery office’s door, which satisfies the law, but doesn’t keep the public informed.
As to why the district did not have internet, Colson responded, “We have just been a conservative board watching every penny.”
Correia also responded to criticism of the cemetery’s grass.
She explained that the cemetery is on the city’s water system and it is restricted to watering three days a week, and no days in December, January and February.
To establish new sod, the grounds need to be watered every day.
In stark contrast to Tulare’s cemetery, the Woodville Cemetery has thick plush grass throughout the grounds, even in a section not yet open to the public.
That contrast is especially pronounced, considering Woodville is a poor, unincorporated community outside Porterville.
“That’s the name of the game – water,” said the manager at Woodville Cemetery. “We water every day.”
Woodville has its own well and is in the jurisdiction of the county so the cemetery can use as much water as it wants.
Woodville Cemetery also only has about one or two funerals a week, so the one fulltime employee has time to do all the mowing and is a certified backhoe driver to dig all the graves.
Correia said that with Tulare’s seven full time employees there are not quite enough workers to handle all the burials and do their own maintenance, especially if someone gets sick.
Colson added that they used to do the maintenance themselves but with all the environmental regulations the cemetery was going to have to replace all of its equipment.
That is when they switched to contracting out the maintenance.
As far as expenses, it’s close to a wash said Colson.
The key words are, “if someone gets sick.”
Deal stated that Steve Cunningham, the elder maintenance manager, wasn’t physically fit to do the work.
“He is fairly non-functional,” Deal said.
A source close to the cemetary staff alleged that Cunningham “sits in the office and just plays video games on his iPhone,” because some days he can’t work.
But Correia has heard all the rumors and says they aren’t true. She speculated they started because sometimes Cunningham has an equilibrium problem.
“Being the grounds’ manager is not an outside job all the time. He has a lot of paperwork he has to do while managing a crew,” said Correia.
Complaints have also surfaced that Correia is facing her own health issues that keep her at home many days.
Correia said, “I’m fine. I’m just getting a little older.”
Colson feels like the new group’s object is to push Correia and Cunningham to take an early retirement, or have them go on disability, to get them off the payroll.
Cunningham and Correia are husband and wife and are the two highest paid employees at the cemetery.
“As far as I am concerned the public money is not being spent judiciously,” said Deal when asked about the work performance of Cunningham, Ramos and possibly Correia.
Dan Borba wrote on Caring Cause’s Facebook, “I was surprised to see the condition of the cemetery in January 2016 when I laid my mother to rest. Where had the peaceful resting place gone?”
Ironically the two squabbling camps have many family members lying peacefully side by side in the cemetery, and they themselves will likely end up there, too.
Maybe six feet under, the residents don’t care about weeds or internet access, but for now, those family members still above ground want a well maintained cemetery.