More turmoil at Tulare Public Cemetery

Rest in Peace is more of a suggestion than reality at the Tulare Public Cemetery District. After a first round of board resignations and longtime employee departures in September of 2017, a second round of resignations has hit the district.

Two newly appointed trustees have resigned, employees have been fired, and one more case of a misplaced body has surfaced.

High Turnover of Directors

Phil Deal and Vicki Gilson were appointed to the Tulare Public Cemetery District Board early in 2017. From the beginning, they complained that every vote was split 3-2, with longtime board members voting against the new members when they tried to make changes for the better.

After the Voice reported in September on problems concerning rude employees, lack of grounds maintenance, burial mix-ups, and mismanagement of district money, three longtime cemetery employees quit and two board member resigned, Trustees Patty
Colson and Phil Vandegrift .

A third longtime board member, Antonia Chavez, had resigned two months prior after a very contentious July board meeting.

Bill Postlewaite, Richard Johnson, and Alberto Aguilar were appointed to replace them.

The fresh faces apparently did not mean an end to the cemetery’s problems.

Trustee Deal is currently debating whether or not to resign, though individuals in the district have asked him to stay. He said that the current board ousted him as chair and does not adequately publicize the meetings. He said he hears of special meetings the night before they happen and then doesn’t even know what is on the agenda.

“Many times I only hear about what is going with the district second hand or from the employees,” said Deal.

Trustees Johnson and Postlewaite resigned in December after a dispute over Stay Green, the grounds maintenance company, and a possible Brown Act violation.

Problems with Johnson and Postlewaite started at the November 22 cemetery district meeting. Aguilar reported that Stay Green broke water lines, chipped grave markers, ran over a tree, and broke a bench in front of the office.

“They ran into it with the lawn mower. How do you do that?” he said.

Stay Green cost the public cemetery $19,000 a month for maintenance, in addition to extra charges for incidental costs to the tune of $3000 to $5000 a month.

One such incidental cost was the replanting of the tree they ran over. That’s when Aguilar decided to bring the subject of canceling their contract to the board’s November meeting.

During the meeting, the board reviewed Stay Green’s performance and voted 4-1 to terminate the contract with Deal voting no.

According to Aguilar, Trustees Postlewaite and Johnson then met with members of Caring Cause, a facebook group formed to help the cemetery. They thought it was premature to cancel the contract because the district did not have a backup plan. Postlewaite, in response, allegedly called Stay Green and told the manager not to accept the certified letter and to send it back to the cemetery without opening it.

Had the company opened the letter, their contract would have been terminated on December 31, 2017.

Aguilar discovered what had happened and put the incident on the December 6 agenda. At the meeting Aguilar explained that one board member can’t undermine decisions made by the board.

Aguilar said he would be seeking legal counsel.

On hearing that he might be facing legal problems, Postlewaite resigned at the meeting. Johnson, who did not attend the December meeting, resigned soon after, leaving only two members on the board.

Tulare County Supervisor Pete Vander Poel quickly appointed Carlene Ringuis so the cemetery board would have a quorum at their next regular January meeting. Ringuis had been putting in 20 to 25 hours of volunteer time to run the district office after manager Marilyn Correia surreptitiously quit.

Xavier Avila, who currently sits on the Tulare Regional Hospital Board, has applied for the other seat and might be appointed to the Tulare Public Cemetery District board in February.

At a special meeting in January, Stay Green’s contract was terminated and the board is looking to buy the necessary equipment and maintain the grounds themselves.

Aguilar asks the Tulare County District Attorney to Investigate Embezzlement

On October 5, 2017 Aguilar asked the Tulare County District Attorney to investigate possible embezzlement of Tulare Public Cemetery funds by former office manager Marilyn Correia and Steven Cunningham, who are married.

After receiving blistering criticism from the public and board members on mismanagement of the cemetery, Correia and Cunningham quietly planned their exit. During the first two weeks of September the board members, public and the Voice were told that Correia and Cunningham were down south visiting their grandchildren. On September 15, Gilson and Deal heard from the grounds maintenance workers that Correia and Cunningham had left their employment with the district.

After realizing that the management team was gone, Deal and Gilson met at the cemetery district office on Kern Street early in the morning on September 18 to assess the situation. A physical altercation with grounds foreman Phil Miller ensued when Miller tried to prevent them from entering the office. Gilson called the police and they were finally successful in gaining entrance.

According to a report written by Gilson, after reviewing the books, they discovered that payroll supporting records such as all employee time cards, sick leave and vacation accrual information, and three payroll checks for 10/1/17 were missing. When stop payments were ordered on the three checks two additional checks were found by the Auditor’s Office.

All five of them had been cashed except for Geraldo Ramos’. Correia and Cunningham had cashed the other four.

According to Gilson’s write up on the possible embezzlement, “An outside technical firm later determined that financial files on the laptop computer that Marilyn had used had been deleted, and that two flash drives that had been utilized had been cleared.”

After a request by county council to return all cemetery property, Correia returned the vacation and sick leave records to the district office. After Gilson reviewed the records she discovered that, “Marilyn had updated her records, as well as Steve’s, and submitted requests to the Auditor’s Office utilizing a falsified and fraudulent disbursement form for the final payroll checks.”

On December 15, 2017 the Tulare cemetery district received a letter from the TCDA office informing them that the DA was not going to conduct an investigation into possible embezzling.

“After an investigation into the matter concerning Marilyn Louis Correia and the Tulare cemetery, our office has concluded that no criminal activity can be proved based on the witness interviews and evidence provided, therefore, our investigation is closed.”

According to Aguilar, none of the cemetery employees or board members were interviewed.

More Embezzlement Allegations

Aguilar also suspects Correia and Cunningham of receiving money under the table in the form of rent.

Tulare Public Cemetery consists of two sections, the older section on Kern Street and the North Cemetery on J Street. During the last two years visitors to the North Cemetery noticed one of the gates always open and that it appears someone was living in the shed.

The issue was addressed at several district board meetings.

The suspected person was head grounds keeper for the North Cemetery, Ramos, who Correia admitted was very reluctant to fire after many serious infractions.

In an interview with the Voice on August 29, 2017 Correia stated that Ramos did not live at the North Cemetery. She also said that Ramos was informed that if the office management continued to receive complaints that he was rude, or misplaced another body, there would be consequences.

Correia expressed fear that if Ramos, a 30-year employee, were fired he could sue the district.

Aguilar, who was sworn in as a Trustee on September 19, met with Ramos at the district office soon after to resolve the issue.

Ramos told Aguilar, “I just want you to know that rumors I have lived there (North Cemetery) are not true.”

Ramos then asked Aguilar, “Can you help me move my stuff?”

Aguilar helped Ramos move his furniture, a washing machine and his cable TV box, and witnessed a hole in the ceiling where wires led to the dish.

When Aguilar asked the grounds keepers about Ramos, they informed him that Ramos had been living in the shed for eight years. They told him Ramos had a dog, dog house, garden, and had moved in an undocumented friend or relative, Abraham, who worked for a short time for the district. When the board found out Abraham wasn’t documented they let him go.

“There is no way the old board did not know he lived there,” said Aguilar.

Three Guests Buried in the Wrong Plot and Counting

Three loved ones, and possibly more, were buried in the wrong grave at Tulare Public Cemetery in 2017. According to the comments on Caring Cause’s Facebook page, this problem has been going on for years.

In April of 2016 Mathew Renteria’s father was buried in the wrong plot. They knew immediately because they had bought a large grave but his casket didn’t fit. The grounds keepers dropped the casket several times and then shoved it in, damaging the casket.

On April 5 Janice Ojeda passed away and Mary Lou, her daughter, chose a location three spaces from a large tree so there would be shade. Mary Lou knew immediately it was the wrong grave when she arrived at the cemetery because the plot was in the opposite location from what they had chosen and directly in the sun.

Trenity Monsibais was 14 years old and passed away in March, 2017 after a five-year battle with leukemia. Her family first became suspicious that someone else was buried in Trenity’s spot when they noticed the mementos they left were gone. Then in November Trenity’s mother, Alicia Monsibais, visited her daughter’s grave and saw Veterans’ memorabilia and happy birthday balloons, but it wasn’t her daughter’s birthday.

A grounds keeper recently admitted that, after Monsibais family left the cemetery, they moved Trenity’s casket to another plot three spaces over. Ramos had mistakenly dug grave #54 that belonged to someone else.

Alicia Monsibais was devastated to discover that for the last year she was grieving over someone else’s father’s grave.

Different faces, same lack of compassion.

When the cemetery office was first advised about Trenity, Gilson told the mother she would have to provide proof. After Monsibais provided the office with photos Gilson said she would get back to her, but did not return Monsibais phone calls.

Finally Monsibais and other family members came to the January 17 board meeting to complain about Trenity’s grave and the lack of compassion.

A few days later Monsibais received a call from Gilson informing her that her daughter’s grave was going to be dug up on Wednesday, January 24, and asked if she wanted to be there. Gilson also told the mother she would have to call Monday to find out what time.

Distraught over the lack of communication, lack of compassion and not asking permission first, Monsibais husband immediately went down to the cemetery office and told Gilson that under no circumstances is she to communicate his wife again.

Aguilar took over the investigation and resolved the issue.

The other two families got little to no sympathy from the former administration. Renteria’s family never received an apology from the district about putting his father in the wrong grave but instead said Correia blamed everything Ramos’ health problems.

“We weren’t in a drive through buying fast food. We expected some compassion,” said the cousin.

Mary Lou Ojeda said the maintenance man insisted that she was mistaken about her mother’s grave and that she and her family chose the plot that was currently open. Ojeda said the man was so rude she felt sick to her stomach.

After many phone calls, letters and board meetings, the cemetery agreed to give Ojeda a full refund of $3000.

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.”

In Depth: Tulare Regional Medical Center

25 thoughts on “More turmoil at Tulare Public Cemetery

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  1. On December 15, 2017 the Tulare cemetery district received a letter from the TCDA office informing them that the DA was not going to conduct an investigation into possible embezzling.

    “After an investigation into the matter concerning Marilyn Louis Correia and the Tulare cemetery, our office has concluded that no criminal activity can be proved based on the witness interviews and evidence provided, therefore, our investigation is closed.”

    According to Aguilar, none of the cemetery employees or board members were interviewed.

    When coupled with Tim Ward’s complete failure to act on the TRMC/HCCA disaster, a pattern begins to emerge. I wonder if he took money from them, too?

  2. I attended the meeting yesterday over concerns . I asked alot of questions and left feeling confident the issues are being addressed Another case of embezzelment at a Cemetary makes you wonder how this could have happened but now on the right track I hope Phillip remains on the board

  3. When are there meetings and are they open to the public. I have my in laws buried there and I have complained numerous times about up keep and nothing ever happened so I took care of it myself. I would love to be on the board

  4. I have so appreciated the news coverage the Valley Voice has given Tulare whether it is the Hospital, the City or the Cemetery. However, this article is laden with mistakes.

    I voted to terminate Stay Green but I never contacted them to tell them to ignore the termination letter. I requested the Board do a a feasibility study to determine if it would be advantageous to maintain the grounds with current staff. Nothing happened.

    Though Mr. Aguilar accused Dick Johnson and me of participating in a serial board meeting, that never happened. Either Aguilar doesn’t know what constitutes a serial board meeting or he was misinformed.

    I did, of course, resign from the Board but certainly not because I was afraid I would get into trouble. I resigned because the Biard voted to pay themselves $100 per meeting for a maximum of 4 meetings per month. I resigned because, after serving for 8 weeks on the Board nobody could tell me where we were financially. I resigned because Aguilar accused Johnson and me of violating the Brown Act. By the way, it takes three board members to create a meeting, Aguilar never identified the third member

    The Cemetery has lots of problems. I am sure they are woking hard to solve them.

    • Bill, thank you for clarifying why you resigned. There were many issues to cover in this article so I appreciate any feedback. I do believe the financials are going to take a long time to straighten out.

    • Not to stir the pot but, Alberto told me it was 5-0. then I changed the article to 4-1 after speaking with Phil

      • I don’t recall whether the decision to terminate Stay Green was 4/1 or 5/0. I do recall that some board members were of the opinion that existing staff could handle maintenance during the winter months thus saving $19,000 per month for approximately three months. The $57,000 would then be sufficient to purchase equipment if the Board made a decision to maintain the Cemetaries with existing staff. The infighting among board members must stop and replaced by a team effort to improve the cemeteries.

  5. Catherine, there are some errors that need correcting; Phillip Deal was not ousted, he failed to attend and the board followed its Bylaws; Mr. Deal has been properly notified of ALL Board Meetings in accordance with the Brown Act; The Board voted 5-0 to terminate Stay Greenon 11/22/17; According to the info provided during the 12/06/17 meeting, Richard Johnson made the phone call to Stay Green, not Bill Postlewaite, At no time durng December 2017, were there only two active board members; There was not a special board meeting in January 2018 to terminate the contract with Stay Green, and/or rescind the board action of 11/22/17; On 12/05/17, I submitted my complaint to the Tulare Police Department, not the DA’s office; I filed the complaint and no one from the DA’s office ever contacted me and/or Vicki Gilson; The facility being used for living quarters was not a shed but rather a maintenance facility that has four roll-up doors, bathrooms, shower, and a lot of storage space.

    • Alberto, thank you also, along with Bill for making clarifications. I apologize to Bill for saying that he called Stay Green to cancel the contract.

    • Among other erroneous statements made by Mr. Aguilar he knows full well that I as Board Chair was interviwed on multiple occasions by the District Attorney investigator. Stating no Board members were interviewed is a baffling and misleading comment.

  6. It doesn’t surprise me that there was infighting between Postlewaite and Aguilar. Correct me if I am wrong as it was years ago but if memory serves me both men were members of the hospital’s bond money oversight committee with Aguilar being a whistleblower and Postlewaite (a long time member of this city’s inner circle) really dropping the ball when it came to doing actual due diligence. Of course Postlewaite was not alone as there was quite a list of who’s who that sat on that committee at any given time looking the other way who questioned little to nothing as most were just figure heads sitting on local boards, building up their “public resumes”. Aguilar was one of a few who questioned how the money was being spent and decisions that were being made on that god awful tower. I don’t know who is right and who is wrong when it comes to the cemetery board but I do agree with Postlewaite on one thing, they need to work together as a team with one stated goal…….serve and protect our cemeteries.

    • Barbara, please refrain from commenting until you have your facts straight. Many citizens are beginning to talk about your negativity on issues.

      • I call it like I see it. Please note that I don’t ask the same of you Kelly regardless of your negativity.

  7. What a mess. The Kern location is 52 acres, 10 of those acres are the roads, bull pen and office area. There are approximately 4,500 head stones to be edged around, blown off, as the edges of the 10 acres of roads and all the cement boarders. Not to mention, trimming any bushes, taking care of weeds, sprinkler problems, oh let’s not forget the gophers, or just trying to keep up with the garbage the public leaves, that is not in the garbage cans, that by the way have to be emptied. I personally feel, that is too much to ask of 3 employees to take care of, along with the responsibility of digging the graves, setting up for the services, finishing the interment. None us of ever know exactly what is necessary to fulfill a job until we are the ones doing it. How many times a day do they get interrupted with their responsibilities to help someone find a grave? If the public wants our cemeteries to be pristine, maybe they need to rethink this.

    • All I’m trying to say is I think that those are large expectations for three people at the main cemetery. Yes there are two more employees at the north cemetery and they’re always needs to be two employees at the north cemetery. In this day and age it’s not safe for just one of them to be out there and there’s vacations and people get ill. I’m not saying anything about the past. I’m just worried about what the future brings.

  8. The Board Minutes for 11/22/17 state the following – “Trustee Johnson made a motion to terminate contract with Stay Green Inc. effective December 30, 2017 second by Trustee Gilson the board unanimously approved to terminate Stay Green Inc. The board instructed Manager Castaneda to mail out by certified mail a letter to Stay Green Inc. to notify them of the termination and giving Stay Green Inc. 30 days’ notice as stated on the contract.”

    • The main Cause of all these problem with the cemetery seems to revolve around one person and that person need to step down.

      • Oh I agree! It’s sad to see the abuse of power the former chairman seems to have wielded. Now he’s caught lying to the news about his vote in the Stay Green contract. Wow!

  9. Among other erroneous statements made by Mr. Aguilar he knows full well that I as Board Chair was interviwed on multiple occasions by the District Attorney investigator. Stating no Board members were interviewed is a baffling and misleading comment.

  10. My husband and I have lived in Tulare 42 years, so this is our home and where we thought we wanted to be buried. So I looked up the cemetery district and found the mess that’s been going on, not surprising after finding out that Bill Postlewaite is involved. Everything you have touched, Bill, has major problems. I’m speaking of the Tulare School District to the TUlare Regional Hospital and now to the cemetery district!! No thanks!! I’ll look to Visalia!!

  11. I have grown up in Tulare and have many family members and friends buried at both cemeteries. I spend quite a bit of time at both.

    For the past two years I’ve had major runnins with the school district and it’s lack there of.

    To find out this horrific information about the cemeteries as well as the school systems lack of system is all connected to Bill Postlewaite is more than an irritation.

    Not only do I have to deal with the issues of my deceased loved ones but I also have to deal with the issues of my children.

    Apparently being determined to climb the school latter is not going to be my only goal anymore.

    I want my kids to have a good place to live and I have roots here. I live in the same house my grandparents did for over 20 years. This town needs people in positions of authority with a heart, compassion, an open mind and a drive to make the changes necessary to create a better town for generations to come.

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