Turmoil has yet again gripped the Tulare Public Cemetery District’s Board of Trustees.
Members of Caring Cause, a citizens’ group dissatisfied with the district’s leadership and maintenance of its cemeteries, and other members of the public created a standing room only crowd at the district’s February 21 meeting.
The crowd wanted trustees Vicki Gilson and Alberto Aguilar to resign; Gilson threatened several times to end the meeting amidst insults, expletives, and boos.
Despite the contentious atmosphere, Gilson appeared to maintain her composure and ensured that all members of the public who wanted to speak got their three minutes. The board also worked through their regular agenda items and moved the meeting forward despite the commotion.
For the time being, the hemorrhaging of staff and board members from the cemetery district has stopped — as Gilson and Aguilar gave no indication they would resign.
Without their resignation, there’s not much the public can do.
“There are only two ways to remove a board member,” Tulare County Supervisor Pete Vander Poel said. “Both require court involvement.”
Those two scenarios involve either criminal activity or if the trustee does not qualify to be on the board.
There are currently four board members, with the fifth seat expected to be appointed to Xavier Avila by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors February 27. Avila also sits on the Tulare Local Healthcare District’s Board of Directors.
Christina Silva, a former office assistant, started public comment off with a sarcastic riff.
“The first thing I want to say is good morning to my lover,” she said, looking at Trustee Phil Deal.
Most of the room let out chuckles — as many in attendance were aware of malicious gossip that Silva and Deal were having an affair when Silva worked for the district.
Silva’s one question to the board was simple.
“I would like to know why I was fired,” she asked.
In a painful post on Caring Cause’s Facebook, Silva recounted the details surrounding her dismissal and laid out why she felt she was unjustly fired by Gilson.
The post was subsequently taken down by Caring Cause after Gilson threatened to sue for libel.
Ginger Thorton, the mother of another fired employee, was also upset with Gilson.
Thorton said that Gilson threatened Stay Green, the former maintenance company, that they would lose their contract if they did not fire her son, Ken Thorton. Stay Green did fire Thorton, but the company lost their contract anyway soon after.
Silva was fired the same day that Gilson allegedly told Stay Green to fire Thorton which was January 17th. Coincidently, that was the same day that Gilson replaced Deal as chairperson of the board.
Tulare resident Linda Maloy simply asked for Gilson and Aguilar to resign.
“I’m really tired of all this bullsh*t,” she said, “so I’m going to ask for your resignation Ms. Gilson, and yours Mr. Aguilar.”
Her request was “seconded” six or seven times while the audience clapped.
Colleen Day was the only person in attendance to stand up for Aguilar and Gilson.
“It seems that everyone is out to get Vicki and Alberto,” Day said, “because what I’ve heard about, it seems everybody has a little bitchy problem and it all seems to come from one person, from the person who runs [Caring Cause].”
To which the crowd responded by saying, “you’re wrong.”
“Give them a chance to do something. You are doing the best you can. I am proud of you,” Day said.
The public started clapping when Day said she had to leave the meeting for work and Gilson threatened to clear the room if the public was not respectful.
Vicki Gordon, also a Tulare resident, directed her anger at Aguilar for allegedly “running off” two knowledgeable and qualified board members, Bill Postlewaite and Richard Johnson.
Both men resigned from the cemetery board soon after being appointed by Supervisor Vander Poel.
She was also upset at the current condition of the cemetery.
Gordon felt that after “five years of dirt and weeds,” the cemetery was finally looking better under Stay Green’s care.
Gilson closed public comment and started the regular meeting with Elaine Hollingsworth, founder of Caring Cause.
Hollingsworth asked to be put on the agenda in order to discuss the day to day operation of the cemetery.
Hollingsworth supported the public comments saying, “On behalf of Caring Cause we respectfully request that you, Mrs. Gilson and you, Mr. Aguilar, resign to let qualified board members serve on this board that will take it to heart and serve cemetery’s best interests.”
Hollingsworth said that the “tension, friction and animosity” is what drove away former board members Postlewaite and Johnson.
“There is so much back biting that two fine gentleman resigned,” she said.
Holligsworth also said her group agrees with the complaints already voiced during public comment, but her main concern was the condition of the grounds.
“It was one step forward and then we took two steps back.” Holliingswoth was especially angry that the board fired Stay Green without a backup plan saying that the grounds now look “deplorable.”
Gilson pointed out that Stay Green had only been gone since January 31, or three weeks.
Though it may take months to fully implement, the board plans to bring maintenance in-house.
The cemetery will need to make huge capital investments in equipment and hire qualified personnel, starting with a grounds manager.
“You think it’s cheaper in-house, but it is screwing your employees,” Ken Thorton, a former employee, said.
He felt that now the maintenance workers will have to do four times the work for the same pay.
Aguilar said that he spoke to the employees about terminating Stay Green’s contract and they said they could definitely do the job.
Deal interjected, saying that the employees had told him that they could not do the burials and also be responsible for the maintenance of the grounds.
Hollingsworth said that she was still concerned that a budget had not yet been calculated for doing maintenance in-house and it may not be cost effective.
Aguilar said that the district cannot sustain the cost of Stay Green if they end up spending more than the district brings in.
He said that Stay Green not only charged $19,300 a month for maintaining the grounds but that the company was billing the district an extra $3000 – $5000 a month for services that were supposed to already be included in their contract.
A representative from Stay Green who attended the meeting said the extra services were not covered in the contract.
Gilson and Aguilar said that they were.
Avila agreed with Aguilar’s financial opinion.
“My thought is you cannot spend more than what comes in. I believe a complete assessment is in order, Income vs Expense,” he stated on Caring Cause.
Hollingsworth last item to discuss was Gilson’s handling of the mistakes made concerning the burial of Trenity Monsibais.
She felt that Gilson did not keep the rest of the board informed of the problem and that her lack of compassion brought bad publicity to the cemetery.
“Isn’t this supposed to be handled by the office manager,” Hollingsworth asked Gilson.
Gilson responded that Hollingsworth was correct.
Since September 2017, the Tulare Public Cemetery has not had a functional office staff, leaving board members to fill in the gaps and incur severe public criticism. Problems persist as it appears the current office manager struggles with her responsibilities, requiring continued board intervention.
Lack of competent staffing began years ago, prompting Gilson to try and remedy the lack of maintenance when she was first appointed to the board mid 2017.
At different times, all four board members have been pulled into the day to day operations due to the mess left behind by the husband and wife management team, Marilyn Correia and Steve Cunningmham, who surreptitiously left the district the first week of September. Correia and Cunningham have since been accused of embezzling district funds.
Getting Down to Business of Running The Cemetery
Aguilar reported that a qualified prospect had been found to be the new grounds manager and it was decided to arrange for an interview. The board decided to get the future manager’s opinion on lawn maintenance equipment before accepting one of the four bids received.
The board also voted to create a policy on memorial benches and to get bids on a new software program to keep track of where guests are buried.
Additionally, now that the district office finally has internet, the board has made a commitment to post their agendas and meetings online to make them more accessible to the public.
One of the last items on the agenda was encouraging public input and welcoming volunteers.
Hollingsworth said that Caring Cause’s goals were to hold another flower drive so all the gravesites have flowers. She is also looking into starting an endowment fund to help the cemetery with repairs and wants to walk with members of the board to identify sinking graves and get them repaired.
Gilson commended those members of the public who have tended to their loved ones graves, and sometimes even the neighboring graves during the drought and the last years of mismanagement. She said that the board has visited other cemeteries in Selma, Madera and Hanford to get new ideas.
“We are making a plan, making it uniform and going forward and we invite everyone,” she said. “It’s going to be teamwork to maintain the cemetery.”