The Tulare Public Cemetery District held an in-person meeting April 23 at its district office. The meeting took place despite the fact that two trustees and some members of the public requested that the meeting be canceled unless the district provided for remote participation.
With the board members sitting under an outside arbor at separate tables, and the public’s chairs arranged six feet apart, Chairperson Steve Presant, and two other trustees, Xavier Avila and James Pennington, got down to business.
Having a quorum, the board made notable decisions such as hiring two more grounds keepers and amending the 2020 budget so the district could pay its bills.
Tulare resident Jennifer Burcham said during public comment that it was only fair that the two other board members be allowed to participate either by zoom or teleconferencing.
Trustees Alberto Aguilar and Vicki Gilson, along with some members of the public, did not feel safe attending the in-person meeting and requested to participate by phone. Aguilar and Gilson say a memo posted on the cemetery’s website by Presant on March 20 specifically stated the April 23 meeting might be video-conferenced and wanted to know why Presant did not follow through.
Presant’s memo stated, “The regular board meeting for April 23, 2020, are still scheduled and may be held using remote site access through video conferencing if necessary. The governor has made emergency changes to the Brown Act that makes this temporarily possible.”
Presant’s statement has since been taken of the cemetery’s website.
In addition, arrangements were initially made for the district’s auditor to participate by phone. In response, Gilson and Aguilar requested the same accommodation be made for them. But by the day of the meeting the auditor was only available by phone in case the trustees had any questions.
Presant responded that the district did not have the technical capacity to conduct a virtual meeting and that the option of teleconferencing had to be noticed 72 hours prior. He added that if there is no mechanism for the public to participate remotely then it was against the Brown Act to allow the trustees to vote by phone.
Aguilar and Gilson countered that Governor Newsom’s Executive order suspended certain provisions of the Brown Act during the Covid crisis and encouraged teleconferencing, video process, or cancellation of meeting.
Avila voiced his strong displeasure before the meeting started about the Valley Voice’s writing a negative article about the district instead of writing about all the positive things.
“I have talked to many people in Tulare and they do not understand what is the big deal,” said Avila. He said the Tulare Local Healthcare District (TLHCD) has had a couple of in-person meetings where all the trustees were present and the Valley Voice never reported about that.
“If the district is following the rules what is the problem?” asked Avila.
Tulare resident Alex Guitierrez pointed out that Avila was in fact not present at the April 22nd TLHCD meeting, participating remotely, and casting his vote by phone. Avila confirmed that was true but said that all five directors were present for an earlier meeting that month and that everyone felt safe.
TLHCD meetings offer several virtual options to its constituents and trustees. Anyone can participate by zoom, teleconferencing, or can call or email the district manager to submit public comments. The Tulare Public Cemetery is the only in-person meeting known to the Valley Voice to take place where no option of attending virtually or by phone is available.
After the meeting Aguilar said in an email, “I believe that my civil rights as a citizen and Trustee of the Board have been violated. Since members of the public were denied access to the board meeting as well as two trustees, perhaps a class action law suit is in order.”
To thicken the plot, Tulare resident Vicki Gordon said during public comment that trustees who are not currently in the jurisdiction cannot participate by phone. She was referring to Gilson, who is currently in Missouri.
Gilson responded by email saying that she and her husband own a vacation home in Missouri. She added that a trustee outside the jurisdiction can participate and vote in a meeting by phone if a quorum of the directors are in the jurisdiction, which was true in this case.
“Best financial State in two years”
During the auditor’s report it was announced that the district is in great financial health.
“This is the best I’ve seen the finances in two years,” said Linda Maloy, Audit Committee member.
Presant reported that the district’s CalPERS account was $600,000 in the black and that it had contributed $52,000 to its endowment fund, which accrues interest. He said if the district keeps on track with how well it has done during the first three months, the cemetery will bring in $100,000 in profit by the end of the year.
“This has been a complete turn around,” said Presant.
Maloy pointed out that more people are being buried at Tulare’s cemetery because it is much better maintained, not just because of the Coronavirus. She also added that last year the cemetery was running a deficit but that was because the district had to buy several expensive pieces of equipment.
Present said that the district could not cancel this meeting because it needed to amend the operational budget. Office manager Leonor Castaneda explained that expenses are up but so are profits due to the high volume of burials in the first three months of 2020. This has resulted in the district’s going over budget even while maintaining a surplus in its bank account.
Castaneda said that the county will not forward any funds above and beyond the approved budget, and that the board needs to pass a resolution now amending the budget if the district is to be able to pay its bills.
The board passed the resolution 3-0 to amend its operational budget.
In an email Gilson stated concerning the resolution, “They haven’t considered the increased costs due to raises given, additional staff hired, nor the fact that they were unable to pay any bills in March ,except for payroll, due to the budget transfer required, so there’ll be tremendous expenses for April and to catch up. In addition, my prediction is the budget transfer was short-sighted in that it only referenced the supplies category – based on my projections , they’ll need a transfer to pay June payroll which in the Salaries category.”
“The Cemetery most certainly will end the year in a deficit position,” said Gilson.
Other decisions made by the board included the hiring of two fulltime grounds keepers.
Also discussed was raising the burial fees. Avila said that if income is up then he did not see the justification for raising prices right now.
Presant said that the district has already put out proposals for several capital improvements such as updating the 1930’s office and that the district is going to have come up with the money to pay for it. No decision was made but Pennington said that if the district raises vault prices it would be in line with what the other local cemeteries charge.
Because the board voted on the resolution to amend the budget, Presant said May’s meeting will not be necessary. He anticipates the next board meeting to be at the end of June. It was requested that during those two months he research into the possibility of conducting the meeting virtually for those who can’t attend.
In 2017, Elaine Hollingsworth created the facebook group Caring Cause to turn around the deplorable conditions at the Tulare Cemetery. Because of her group, and the Valley Voice’s reporting, the entire board stepped down and the three highest paid employees quit.
Since that time there has been turnover on the board and of cemetery employees, but the cemetery has returned to its former beauty.
Now, Avila says that Caring Cause has lost its way and Presant asked Hollingsworth to shut down Caring Cause’s facebook page.
Avila acknowledged what Caring Cause had accomplished, but stated that there were too many commenters bashing the employees and making complaints that were not true. The actions of some members, he said, almost lead to losing some quality employees. Avila feels that some members create controversy just for the sake of controversy and that the group needs to go.
“If Caring Cause is working against its own goals for the cemetery, what is the purpose of the organization?” Avila wondered.
“It’s not even a legitimate organization, it’s just a facebook page,” said Avila.
Hollingsworth said by email, “I believe Caring Cause still serves a purpose in continuing to ensure the Board is held accountable. Furthermore, it’s a place where information can be provided to the members concerning such things as: flower policy and mosquito abatement policy just to name a few.”
Up until January Avila was using Caring Cause as a method to post cemetery pictures and post the agendas because the district had no website.
Hollingsworth said that even though the district now has a website, that after four years of providing information about the cemetery, people are still going to prefer facebook over the website.
“Caring Cause wants to work with the Board and for Board to feel free to post pertinent information concerning the cemetery,” said Hollingsworth.