For the second time this summer the Tulare Public Cemetery District (TPCD) Board has attempted to remove a sitting member.
In part, a letter to Trustee Vicki Gilson from Chairperson Steve Presant stated, “On Thursday, September 17 2020 the Board of Trustees will hold a special meeting to consider whether to declare a vacancy in your seat on the Board as a result of your ceasing to be an inhabitant of the District. Because you appear to have ceased being an inhabitant of the District and to be living in Missouri the Board intends to enforce Government Code Section 1770, subdivision (e).”
The first time TPCD board tried to remove Gilson for allegedly not living in the district was during a special meeting called on July 9. That meeting was canceled due to a staff member who tested positive for COVID – 19.
Last Thursday’s attempt to remove Gilson ended late into the meeting after Trustee Jim Pennington had a surprising change of heart, saying that after all he had heard he would not vote to remove Gilson.
Trustee Xavier Avila stated that, given how Pennington feels, a vote by the board was pointless.
Trustee Alberto Aguilar followed, “I want to make a motion that we cease and desist with this item.”
For lack of a second Aguilar’s motion failed.
The board decided to bring the issue back at a later date.
Three Hour Debate over Gilson’s Official Domicile
TPCD board members are appointed by Tulare County Supervisor Pete Vander Poel. Once the person is sworn into office Vander Poel cannot remove the trustee.
A letter dated September 11 to Gilson from Presant stated, “If the Board decides to declare your position vacant, then the Board will request that the Tulare County Board of Supervisors appoint a registered voter from the District to replace you…”
The Catch 22 is that Vander Poel would be asked to replace Trustee Gilson, a registered voter in the district, with another registered voter in the district.
County Counsel did explain to the board and attendees during the meeting that a public hearing has a lower legal bar than a court of law. According to County Counsel’s advice, the trustees have slightly more latitude than just considering voter registration when establishing a board member’s primary domicile and their intent to stay at that domicile.
At the district’s expense, County Counsel is always present at TPCD board meetings. Two were present at the September 17 meeting.
Presant was first to lay out his case, saying that Gilson had not been an inhabitant of the district for a while and that she and her husband had moved to Missouri. ”I am just bothered by someone legislating on the board from Missouri,” he said.
Gilson, who was participating through teleconferencing, responded, “I’ve had the same address (in Tulare) for a long time and I have been in and out of town due to COVID. I plan on coming back soon.” Gilson added later in the meeting that her intent is to live in Tulare, not Missouri.
Avila said that he initially was not in favor of voting Gilson off the board when Presant first broached the subject in April. “But I’ve had six months to collect evidence,” said Avila. He said that many factors build into the body of evidence to determine someone’s official residence.
He acknowledged that Gilson was registered in Tulare but said that fact does not prove she lives here. “She could be registered here illegally,” he said.
He added that after driving by Gilson’s house he found there is no trash service, there is an abandoned car, and that the yard is so over grown it impedes the front door.
“I have driven by that house many times and no one is there,” said Avila.
He said that when Gilson does come back to town she doesn’t stay at her house but stays in a motor home in the Walmart parking lot.
Gilson responded, “When I am in town I stay in my house or I stay with my son or daughter. But I am an inhabitant of Tulare.”
During Avila’s private investigation he spoke to her neighbors and people who attend her church and said that no one has seen her.
“I’ve asked people have you seen her? And they say no she moved to Missouri.”
In addition, Avila said he discovered that Gilson’s husband, Larry, is registered to vote in Missouri and owns a house in Joplin, MO while Vicki owns a home in Tulare.
Avila asked County Counsel, “Is it usual for two married people to have two domiciles? Are they separated?”
County Counsel Aaron Zaheen said, “It is not beyond the realm of possibility for spouses to have two houses.”
Avila then looked toward the phone to address Gilson, “You said you were a registered voter but you didn’t vote in the last election.”
“Oh my God,” said Gilson.
Avila addressed County Counsel, saying, “I’d like to know why Mrs. Gilson did not vote in the last election.”
Gilson said, “I don’t think I did. I’m not required to.” She went on to explain that she normally does not vote in primaries but only general elections.
Avila then asked Gilson, “Where are your heirlooms? Where are your baby pictures?”
He continued, “Where do you go to the doctor, where do you buy your gas, where do you do your banking?”
Out of frustration Aguilar fumed that Avila and Presant have made many accusations but have submitted no evidence that Gilson is not a resident of Tulare.
“What proof do you have? You have brought nothing to the table. This meeting should have been us reviewing the cemetery’s financial reports, of which I have not seen since May.”
“What people say at church, that’s gossip. What people are saying on facebook, that’s gossip, OK? Aguilar then held up Gilson’s Tulare voter registration card with her Tulare address and said “This is proof.”
Avila then asked County Counsel if it was reasonable for him to ask neighbors or people at her church if they know where Gilson lives. County Counsel said that soliciting testimonies is reasonable but “it is hearsay.”
Gilson responded, “I am totally offended and appalled. You are totally out of line, all of you.”
Aguilar reminded the board that the cemetery district is setting itself up for civil litigation at taxpayer expense. “If it were me,” Aguilar said, “I would sue the hell out of you and you can quote me on that.”
During public comment Alex Gutierrez, a member of Citizens for Hospital Accountability, said, “You guys are really being savages. Why are you doing this? Because she is asking for the financials, because she is holding you accountable?”
Toward the end of the meeting “intent to stay” became the central issue as to how the board would ultimately decide to vote.
Presant asked Gilson, “Do you plan on coming back and staying in Tulare?”
“Yes,” said Gilson
“When,” said Presant.
“In a couple of weeks,” she said.
Avila stated that he intended to drive by her house t that time to see if she actually is living there. When the public grumbled with discontent Avila snapped back, “I can drive by anybody’s house I want to and you can’t tell me I can’t.
“But it’s creepy,” said Gutierrez.