New Board, Employees Take Over at Tulare Cemetery

The guests may be the same but almost everything else is new at the Tulare Public Cemetery.

Three new employee positions are open and three new Board of Trustee members will be installed by the end of October.

Alberto Aguilar was hurriedly sworn in on Tuesday, September 19 when the Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved his appointment to fill Trustee Toni Chavez’ seat. The cemetery district meeting was the next day, on September 20, and the board needed a quorum in order to get back to work after a tumultuous two months.

Two more trustees will be appointed by Supervisor Pete Vander Poel this month, making it five new board members since March. Applications have been submitted by Carlene Ringius, Richard Johnson, and Bill Postlewaite for the two remaining seats whose terms end January 6, 2020.

Patricia Colson resigned September 8 and Phil Vandegrift’s resignation letter was dated September 20. There is a 15-day waiting period before the Board of Supervisors can make an appointment to fill seats.

Although Chavez resigned her seat July 12, the vacancy was not posted until almost two months later.

When the cemetery district office was contacted during that time Marilyn Correia said that there were no board vacancies.

Chavez explained that board members must announce their resignation at a meeting before a vacancy is posted. Trustee Phil Vandegrift has never returned after a contentious July 12 board meeting and never announced his resignation.

Three Employees Resign

On arriving at their September 20 board meeting, the trustees were informed 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.

The three employees’ last day of work was September 8 but their resignations were kept secret for almost two weeks. The Valley Voice was told after making several calls to the district office 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. Their letters 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.

Board members Deal and Gilson reported to the paper earlier that the three employees in question were physically unable to do their job effectively. Correia informed the Voice and 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 and how it affected their ability to do their jobs.

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 at the September meeting to voice their frustration over their loved one being buried in the incorrect grave.

This is the second time someone has complained about a loved one being buried in the wrong 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’ health issues. Renteria and his family felt that the district should have apologized and not put the blame on an employee.

“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, the cemetery 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, 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 about the damage to his 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 the cemetery mistakenly ordered.

The district refunded $3000 in July 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 used to be to clean up the cemetery but now that is happening. Her new mission is to help the new board move forward.

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 countered by saying that cemeteries such as Woodlake’s look a lot worse than the Tulare’s. “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 30 years experience at the cemetery and she only has 30 days.

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 as to not interfere with the investigation.

The Agenda

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 grounds 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 the Chair and Aguilar as the Vice Chair.

The board 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, apply herbicide, and perform other duties. Gilson said that the former grounds maintenance company only 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.

The next regular Tulare Public Cemetery District Board meeting is Wednesday, October 18 at the district office on Kern Avenue at 9am.

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