On July 7 the Tulare Public Cemetery District (TPCD) was forced to close due to an employee testing positive for COVID. All services and burials are canceled along with the special meeting called for July 9 to discuss removing Trustee Vicki Gilson from the board.
The district office will be closed until the eight other employees are tested and receive their results.
Office Manager Leonor Castaneda said the employees will be tested at the same clinic today and will receive the results in two to five business days. Castaneda said that the Tulare County Health Department has told the employees to close the office and stay home until they get their results.
Gilson suggested the district reimburse employees for the cost of testing in the hope of expediting the process and getting the cemetery back open quickly. Gilson was “greatly concerned about the canceled services” and the members of the community who will not able to bury their loved ones.
Trustee Xavier Avila said, “We are intent on opening the cemetery ASAP but will not buck the advice of our health department.”
According to Castaneda, the employee showed no symptoms but received a positive test result at Kaweah Delta Hospital while preparing for elective surgery.
“Something is going wrong here”
On the morning of July 7, Trustee Alberto Aguilar and Tulare resident Alex Gutierrez arrived at the TPCD office. They immediately could tell something was wrong.
Aguilar and Gutierrez had gone to the office to hand deliver documents to be put in the agenda packet for the July 9 Special Board meeting. Gutierrez was there as witness because either Castaneda or Board Chair Steve Presant have neglected in the past to include Trustees Gilson or Aguilar’s documents. Nor have either Aguilar or Gilson been able to get items of concern on the TPCD agendas.
Gutierrez stated, “I sat down to await his (Aguilar) arrival when I noticed David Faria, foreman, who looked at me with an upset face (no mask). Another groundskeeper (with a mask) yells something toward my direction…he yells in audible words again and I repeat that I can’t hear and he takes out his phone and starts to take pictures and or record me.”
Aguilar and Gutierrez reported, “We notice five groundskeepers close together sitting on the bed of the truck looking bothered. We asked what was going on and first were met with defiance telling us to step away. Office Manager Castaneda then comes out the back door and tells Alberto and I that they’re ‘officially shut down’ due to COVID – 19 situation.
“Alberto asks her if the office staff was affected, she said no and then walked back into work. The groundskeepers didn’t want to talk to us so Alberto and I proceed to make our way back to the front of the office and digest the events we were witnessing.”
“All together at staff safety meeting”
A teleconferenced TPCD emergency meeting was called at 1pm the same day to announce that an employee had tested positive and that the cemetery would have to close. The audio of the meeting is on Caring Cause’s Facebook page.
Hoping not all the employees were exposed, Aguilar asked during the meeting if the infected employee worked at the North Cemetery or Kern Cemetery, two locations served by separate staff.
Castaneda said where the employee worked didn’t matter because, “We were all together in the same room July 2 at a Safety Staff meeting. We were all together so it doesn’t matter what cemetery employee worked at.”
Gilson commented that if rules had been followed that all employees wear masks they would not have been exposed to the employee who tested positive.
Aguilar added he noticed only two groundskeepers wearing protective gear. “Our employees are just ignoring the rules.”
“This was a disaster waiting to happen and now it has happened.”
Avila countered there are exceptions to wearing masks, especially for groundskeepers doing physical work in the heat.
Castaneda also countered that the employee could have gotten infected anywhere, not necessarily at the cemetery.
Trustee Jim Pennington said that this was no time to be pointing fingers. He said it’s not the district that makes the rules – referring to the fact that it was the health department that ordered the cemetery to close.
The unintended consequences of COVID has not spared TPCD
Like the rest of the Central Valley and the country, COVID has ripped off the scab and highlighted problems festering at the cemetery for years.
Financial mismanagement of the district on many levels has been a common complaint among consituents and board members. Aguilar has unaddressed questions about miscalculation of payroll, irregularities in the Endowment Care and Revolving Fund, illegal pay raises among other financial issues.
Gilson has asked for a resolution of the district’s annual audit report that found “deficiencies in the entity’s internal control to be material weaknesses…regarding Accounts Payable/Expenditures and the Chart of Accounts as well the area of non-compliance relating to CalPERS PEPRA Retirement Contributions.”
Now the district might be liable to pay employees up to $11,000 to stay at home. With the cemetery being closed because of possible exposure to the infection, the employees are entitled to what is called the COVID 80. All employees could receive up to 80 hours pay during the cemetery shut down. The COVID 80 must be paid for by the district,
According to Castaneda, the district can apply to the state to be reimbursed but it is unknown if that request will be honored if the employees were not following COVID safety procedures.
It was not discussed during the emergency meeting exactly who was responsible for enforcing the mandated COVID safety procedures.
Who makes the decisions at the district has also been a point of contention for years and COVID has made it worse.
Board Chair Steve Presant, referring to Castaneda as the district’s “CEO” has allowed the her to make major decisions such as the cemetery’s burial policy regarding COVID.
Aguilar has said many of those decisions should be made by the board.
He wanted the board to make the decision to close the cemetery but Avila said that it was the Tulare County Health Department’s decision and that a vote was not necessary. Avila acknowledged that Tulare County Supervisors opened the county against the health department’s orders but said that “the county and a public district are two different things.”
During the shutdown he said, “We (the district) would have been fined $1000 by the health department if we had put up awnings during services.” He encouraged the board to follow the health department’s orders and “hopefully we can get open as soon a possible.”
Aguilar then read from the state code that said the majority of the legislative body was responsible for making the decision to close the cemetery, not the health department. His concern was also expediency, saying, “We can’t have people put on ice.”
Aguilar tried twice to make a motion to close the cemetery due to exposure to COVID but was rebuffed by Presant and Avila, who said the motion does not make sense.
Avila was concerned that leaving the decision to the board might hinder or delay the reopening of the cemetery when all employees are cleared to go back to work. It should be noted that an emergency meeting was successfully held with all board members in attendance two hours after the health department recommended the cemetery close.
Another unintended consequence of the closure due to COVID was the postponement of the July 9 special meeting to remove Gilson from her seat for not attending meetings since December 2019.
In an ironic twist of fate, Presant’s attempt to remove Trustee Gilson was scuttled because of COVID. Though Gilson has in fact attended meetings in 2020, the April 23 meeting, of which she is accused of missing, and is a lynchpin in Presant’s case, was because of concerns over in-person meetings during COVID.
During that meeting Presant and Castaneda refused to allow her or Aguilar to participate by phone.