Three employees resigned from the Tulare Cemetery and one new board member took a seat at the Tulare Public Cemetery District meeting Wednesday, September 20.
The cemetery district was in need of one more member to make a quorum and to get back to work after two tumultuous months. Alberto Aguilar was hurriedly sworn in on Tuesday when the Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved his appointment to fill Trustee Toni Chavez’ seat.
Although Chavez resigned her seat July 12, the vacancy was not posted until almost two months later.
When contacted during that time, the district office insisted that no board member had resigned.
Chavez explained that board members must announce their resignation at a meeting before a vacancy is posted. The board is still waiting for Trustee Phil Vandegrift to announce his resignation.
Vandegrift allegedly resigned September 11.
The three Tulare Cemetery board members were informed only minutes before the meeting began that two employees, Marilyn Correia and Steve Cunningham, had resigned and that Jerry Ramos had gone on medical leave.
Approximately half of the agenda had to be tabled because of their unexpected absences.
Their last day of work was September 8. Their resignations were kept secret for almost two weeks. The Valley Voice was told after making several calls to the district office that that Correia was sick. Board member Vicki Gilson was told that Correia and Cunningham, who are married, were visiting their grandchildren.
During public comment, former board member Patricia Colson read Correia and Cunningham’s resignation letters. In the letters it stated that neither Cunningham nor Correia wanted to announce their resignation earlier because they had been bullied by Caring Cause and Board members Phil Deal and Vicki Gilson.
Correia and Cunningham stated that they resigned after reading the Valley Voice article of September 7. They felt Gilson and Deal violated their right to privacy by discussing with the paper employee issues. Correia also accused Gilson of making threats, saying such things as Gilson was going to “straighten me out.”
Correia felt that the threats and public disclosure of employees’ health issues were illegal and should be investigated.
Deal and Gilson reported to the paper earlier that the three employees in questions were physically unable to do their job effectively. Correia informed the Voice and several members of the public about Ramos’ severe diabetes and of being hard of hearing and how it affected his work performance. She has also discussed with the Voice and the board her own medical issues and those of her husband’s.
Neither Correia nor Cunningham provided a copy of their resignation letters to the board and only allowed them to be read aloud at the meeting.
My Father Was Put In the Wrong Grave
Mathew Renteria and his cousin were unaware of the turmoil that had been happening at the cemetery. They were in attendance to voice their frustration over their loved one being buried in the incorrect grave.
Renteria’s father passed away in April of 2016, and the issues of his burial are still festering.
“You can’t bully a bully,” Renteria said, “to experience Marilyn is to experience a bully.”
Renteria said that Correia tried to blame the cemetery’s mistakes on Ramos. Renteria and his family felt that the district should have apologized and were not interested in Ramos’ health problems.
“We weren’t in a drive through buying fast food. We expected some compassion,” he said.
When Renteria discovered that his father was buried in the wrong spot, Ramos tried to justify it by claiming that someone else was in the spot they chose.
The cemetery later found the grave was empty.
Renteria also complained that while his father was being interred, the grounds keepers dropped his coffin several times.
According to Renteria, when the grounds workers realized that the coffin was too big for the crypt or vault, they shoved it in anyway damaging the coffin. Renteria said that the family paid approximately $5000 for the casket.
The coffin was too small for the vault because the Tulare Cemetery District had ordered the wrong one.
When Renteria informed Correia what had happened he said that Correia got angry. But she didn’t get angry over what happened to Renteria’s father’s casket, but rather that Renteria’s family was present during the interment.
Cemetery policy states that attendees must leave the area before the decedent is buried.
When Rentria complained again about how his family was treated, Correia offered to dig his father up and pay for the damage to his coffin upon inspection.
Renteria’s family declined her offer.
Instead, the family was reimbursed the $32 difference in burial costs between the larger vault and the smaller one that they mistakenly received.
The District recently refunded $3000 to another family whose mother was buried in the wrong plot.
More Public Comment
Elaine Hollingsworth, founder of Caring Cause, read a statement during public comment. She said that her mission was to clean up the cemetery and that is now happening. Hollingsworth has also filed a Grand Jury report against the former district trustees “because they have to be held accountable for their actions or lack thereof.”
She stated in the Grand Jury report that there has been a “Total neglect of cemeteries, lack of fiduciary duties by former Trustees: Patricia Colson, Phil Vandegrift, and Antonia (Toni) Chavez. Deplorable maintenance of grounds, sinking graves, dead lawn, chipped or broken grave markers, gophers, etc. Concerns also over internal operations and board meetings not being held in compliance with law.”
Another member of the public said that cemeteries such as Woodlake’s look a lot worse than the Tulare Cemetery. “It may not be 100%, but we look pretty good.”
Gene Chavez, Toni Chavez’ husband said, “We owe a thanks of gratitude to former board members Moor, Colson, Vandegrift, Lampe and my wife.” He then read a long list of their accomplishments.
He accused Gilson and Deal of intimidating the grounds workers and causing the former landscaping company to quit. He also accused them of violating the Brown Act, having closed-door meetings, and hiring a new landscaping company without a vote by the board.
He chastised Gilson for being critical of Ramos as he has had 30 years experience at the cemetery and she only had 30 days.
Chairman Deal informed Chavez that he was out of time. An argument ensued. Chavez asked various members of public if he could take their five minutes so he could continue while Deal implored him to take his seat.
Christine Silva then spoke out of frustration that she was attending the meeting “to address the cemetery’s condition, not listen to all this in-fighting.”
Tulare Police Department Called
The Tulare Police Department was present during the meeting causing concern from the public. Deal said that the police were there to keep the peace because “there have been incidences and that is all I can say.”
Deal was not at liberty to say what incidences occurred so as to not interfere with the investigation.
After more than an hour Deal closed public comment and started on the agenda.
Many of the items, such as approving the last meeting’s minutes, the ground’s report, bids from cell phone companies, and a financial report were tabled until the next meeting.
As for the financial report, it was decided to order a forensic audit on the books because the current board has found many discrepancies. Gilson then dispelled rumors that the district was bankrupt and assured the public that all employees would be paid.
The board elected Deal as Chair and Aguilar as the Vice Chair. Tulare County Pete Vander Poel has received applications for the two remaining vacancies and intends on filling them within a few weeks.
The three board members then ratified the hiring of a new landscaping company. The company will be providing a crew of four people five days a week to landscape and apply herbicide, in addition to the other duties. Gilson said that the former company did the “mow, blow and glow” twice a week for $15,000 a month.
The new company is $19,300 a month, but, according to Gilson, provides a much wider scope of services.
Aguilar said that he was working on getting by-laws for the board and an employee handbook for the employees to give the district continuity.
Deal expressed his gratitude for everyone who attended and gave their input and adjourned the meeting.
Regular meetings are scheduled to be the third Wednesdays of the month at 9am.