During its November 20 special meeting the Tulare Public Cemetery District (TPCD) approved sending a formal response to the Tulare County Grand Jury investigation. The response is due by December 9.
But before the trustees dove into a debate over the grand jury investigation they passed “Rules of Decorum and Trustee Conduct.”
Because past meetings have devolved into interrupting trustees, insults, yelling, and foul language, with the last meeting resulting in the police being called twice, Chair Steve Presant introduced a one-page list of rules for trustees and members of the audience to follow. The policy passed 3-2, with Trustees Vicki Gilson and Alberto Aguilar voting no because Aguilar stated that the policy was already in the by-laws.
Grand Jury Findings
Regardless if the policy was already in the by-laws, the newly passed rules were successful in producing a more respectable and calm discussion over the grand jury findings than usual or expected.
Though the trustees did not all agree on the final TPCD letter, out of the six Grand Jury “findings” a majority of the trustees voted to approve all of them.
The two most contentious findings were F1, concerning the district’s financial irregularities, and F3, the grand jury’s conclusion that Caring Cause is an organization disruptive during meetings.
Regarding F1, the trustees came close to fully agreeing with the grand jury’s finding that the district was guilty of inaccuracies in calculating the payroll, and that the endowment fund was handled improperly. In the end the trustees voted 3-2 to “Disagree Partially” with the grand jury’s findings on their finances.
Trustees Xavier Avila, Jim Pennington and Presant felt that payroll had been done accurately and that none of the employees had been short-changed on their pay, thus justifying their not agreeing completely with the grand jury.
Regarding the finding on Caring Cause, people in the audience and Trustee Gilson explained that Caring Cause is a facebook page and not a formal organization. They explained that those people who had disrupted meetings were doing so of their own accord, and that some were not followers of Caring Cause. Trustees Presant, Avila and Pennington disagreed and voted to agree with the grand jury’s finding that it was, in fact, Caring Cause that precipitated the need for a new district conduct policy.
Grand Jury Recommendations
As a result of its investigation, the grand jury gave the TPCD four recommendations, all of which the TPCD plans on implementing or has already implemented.
The Trustees did amend the grand jury’s first recommendation for a forensic audit covering the last five years. Some trustees felt there was no evidence of financial improprieties to justify the expense of an audit.
Aguilar, on the other hand, presented evidence documenting the lies, possible embezzlement, stolen documents, and inappropriate compensation committed by former TPCD office manager Marilyn Correia and her husband, former grounds supervisor Steve Cunningham. Aguilar sent his documentation to the Tulare County District Attorney and requested an investigation, but the DA said there was not enough evidence.
Avila countered that all of the accusations against Correia and Cunningham were hearsay and that former Chair Philip Deal also asked the DA for an investigation. Avila said that in a private conversation the DA told Deal that no crimes had been committed by the couple and that the Valley Voice should retract any of the paper’s accusations against Correia and Cunningham.
Avila did acknowledge some financial irregularities described in the grand jury report which lead to his suggesting the district conduct an audit for the calendar year of 2017.
2017 was a challenging year for the cemetery. The entire board of trustees, and then two newly appointed trustees late in the year, one by one resigned. Correia, Cunningham, and head grounds person, Jerry Ramos, secretly quit a few weeks before the September 20, 2017 general meeting, leaving the district with a skeleton crew and barely a quorum with which to make decisions.
Correia used her personal laptop to conduct cemetery business, which was never made available to the trustees, and two thumb drives left in the office were scrubbed clean. Approximately six months later, current cemetery manager Leonor Castaneda found a thumb drive in the same office desk that did contain the cemetery’s financial information, but, according to audit committee member Linda Maloy, April and May of 2017 were missing.
“Saying the cemetery district was left in chaos would be an understatement,” said Deal.
The environment at TCPD was so charged that on the morning of the September 20 meeting Deal had to call the police when he and Gilson were prevented from entering the district office by a grounds person. Half of the agenda had to be tabled because of the missing documents and information.
The trustees voted 3-2 to approve that, “the Tulare Public Cemetery Board is exploring options about a forensic audit for calendar year 2017.”
Presant and Aguilar voted no.
By exploring options, the trustees meant that they intended to research the cost of an audit for 2017. Based on that information the trustees would decide at a later date on whether or not to proceed with an audit.
Gilson reported that the forensic audit of the Visalia Public Cemetery cost $60,000, only $6000 of which was paid for by the district. Insurance paid for the majority of the cost because a crime was uncovered. TPCD would be liable to pay for the entire cost if no crime was uncovered in the audit.