Tulare Cemetery board meeting vacillates between chaos, calm; board attempts settlement

Tulare Cemetery District Board Chair Xavier Avila inviting attendees back inside to continue the meeting. Catherine Doe/Valley Voice

Tulare County Supervisor Pete Vander Poel meets with Chair Avila out of concern for disinterments

With issues of litigation, firings, and disinterments facing the Tulare Public Cemetery District (TPCD) tensions were running high between a disgruntled constituency and the trustees.

Not surprisingly, 20 minutes into their March 25 meeting, Chair Xavier Avila felt it necessary to temporarily clear the room and instructed Office Manager Leonor Castaneda to call the police.

Through the chaos, and for lack of time, most agenda items were suspended or pushed to next month’s regular meeting, including the financials.

The same apparently was true for the March 25 closed session that lasted several hours after the regular meeting ended. County Counsel Aaron Zaheen reported out of closed session that a settlement of $3508 had been reached with the family of Justiniana Sagisi Jacinto, one of two bodies disinterred on March 8.

Yet the issue is back on the agenda for a special meeting April 7.

The closed session agenda for April 7 states, “Conference With Legal Counsel – Anticipated Litigation Significant Exposure to Litigation, Interment and Burial of Justiniana Sagisi Jacinto”

Castaneda’s evaluation listed on the March 25 closed session agenda is also listed again on the closed session agenda for April 7, but this time with an additional item, “Discipline, Dismissal, Or Release Of Public Employee” – presumably aimed at Castaneda.

‘The public has rightly accused us of being dysfunctional’

Before the police were called, the public was able to voice their complaints about Castaneda, the disinterments, and give their support to fired grounds keeper Brian Viera.

Tulare resident Corina Lara said, “Brian was the best thing in that cemetery, and it’s so unfair because you decided to hire a manager who is not even competent for the job and give her a hefty raise while Brian is working his butt off, and he gets the boot.”

In a prophetic ending to her public comment, Lara looked right at Avila, “When you feel the heat, you throw us out and call the cops.”

Jesse Martin, whose daughter was buried last year said, “Complaints are not being taken care of and that is leading to litigation.” Martin was referring to Castaneda’s threat to lock his family out of the cemetery during his daughter’s service. He is considering pursuing a lawsuit.

Kerri Nelson-Hughes, whose husband had to be disinterred in January pointed a finger towards Castaneda and said: “She should not be treating people like that.”

Ginger Thorton, whose husband is buried in the cemetery said, “All the craziness that happens comes from the office and board. … Let’s get a clue and grow up and treat people like they should be treated.”

Avila ended the public comments saying, “The public has rightly accused us of being dysfunctional.”

‘I was embarrassed for the city of Tulare’

After public comment it was the trustees’ turn, and Avila recognized Board Member Alberto Aguilar to go first. But 30 seconds into his presentation Avila cut him off. Although Aguilar’s comments concerned the agenda packet and the financials, Avila accused him of attacking office staff, which was in violation of the rules of decorum.

Wanting to hear the rest of Aguilar’s comments, the audience calmly voiced their displeasure with Avila’s interruption. When Avila threatened to clear the room and call the police, Lara approached Avila and expressed her anger over not being able to hear what Aguilar had to say.

Avila then instructed Castaneda to call the police and ordered everyone to leave the building.

Not taking Avila’s threat too seriously that he would hold the remainder of the meeting without the public, attendees slowly made their way outside socializing or gathering around Aguilar, who held an impromptu press conference.

Tulare City Council Member Jose Sigala was watching the live stream of the meeting on Caring Cause’s Facebook page and immediately called the Tulare chief of police. He wanted to head off any potential situations that might arise with a police presence. He informed the chief that there had been no incident and the mostly elderly attendees were calm and respectful.

“I was embarrassed for the city of Tulare when I saw how badly Xavier was running the meeting,” Sigala said. “I’ve ran contentious meetings, but nothing compared to what happened at that March 25 meeting.”

When Avila opened the doors and allowed the public back in, he announced that the police would escort anyone out of the meeting that did not follow the rules of decorum.

The police officer in charge immediately countered Avila and said they were not there to escort anyone out of the meeting and asked the public to act with professionalism–to which the crowd, toddling back into the room, responded, “We are. Now tell that to the chair.”

Meeting is reconvened, Trustee comments resume

After announcing that public and trustee comments were limited to three minutes, there would be no applause, that no one could cede their time to another speaker, or continue someone else’s statement, Avila proceeded to give an 11-minute rant.

Avila acknowledged that most of the public comments were true, but then went on to say he was kicked off of Caring Cause for defending the groundskeepers, implicated the Valley Voice in spin-doctoring, and accused Sigala of using the cemetery to gain political points in a run against Supervisor Vander Poel in 2024.

Earlier that week, Sigala had attended the Board of Supervisors meeting and requested that Vander Poel launch an investigation into the cemetery board because of the multiple disinterments. Sigala said during an interview with Hopper in the Morning, “I am an elected official and take my position seriously. … Those who know me know I am a person willing to speak out.”

Avila fumed, “Using his City Council position to call for the BOS to investigate a special district is nothing short of grandstanding .”

Avila continued his rant on the Valley Voice Facebook implicating a conspiratorial link between the law office of Melo and Sarsfield, this reporter, Caring Cause, Hollingsworth, Guitierrez and Sigala in an effort to control the cemetery board.

“That’s why Catherine Doe has written many negative, one-sided articles. She is trying to put pressure on board members to quit,” wrote Avila.

“So all this is connected to people who want power,” Avila said. “Jose is making promises he can’t keep, except for appointing people that Elaine Hollingsworth and Alex Gutierrez want on the board. If Jose gets a chance, he will appoint Alex to the cemetery board, and Alex will ruin it.”

Sigala responded, “I’m not even thinking of running at this time, so I have given no thought to who should be on the cemetery board. I just got elected to the Tulare City Council for four more years and am concentrating on that.”

Sigala said that, except for Gutierrez, he didn’t even know the people Avila mentioned in his Facebook post and had only heard of Caring Cause a few days before the March 25 cemetery meeting.

“I couldn’t pick Elaine Hollingsworth out of a crowd,” Sigala said. “I was truly disappointed in the falsehoods Xavier stated on Facebook.”

Vander Poel reaches out to cemetery

Independent of Sigala’s request for an investigation, Supervisor Vander Poel had already reached out to the cemetery upon reading about the disinterments. “When dealing with that fragile emotional state of mind, even one disinterment is unacceptable and the board has to react,” said Vander Poel.

In a meeting with Avila, Vander Poel said he was extremely remorseful for the grief caused to families due to the disinterments. Avila told Vander Poel that the cemetery had made major mistakes and that they had to be held accountable.

Avila laid out a plan on how to avoid disinterments in the future and said the cemetery was going to establish better protocols and policies. The key for Vander Poel and Avila was ensuring that the cemetery staff followed the new procedures.

Vander Poel reiterated that he can appoint trustees but that he cannot remove them. Only the California State Attorney General has the power to remove a board member of a special district.

He also said the TCBOS cannot give orders to special districts, but nevertheless has involved itself quite a bit with the cemetery. The county looks at the resources available to help special districts, such as training or referring problems to the Grand Jury. County Counsel informed Vander Poel that all the TPCD trustees have attended the necessary training, and that the Grand Jury had brought forward issues with the cemetery’s finances.

“When I see a need in the county, I do what I need to do,” said Vander Poel.

Verification Protocol Committee

One item on the agenda that did get sufficient discussion was the formation of a committee to establish better policies and procedures on grave verification, something everyone could agree on.

Since the Valley Voice reported on March 19 that eight disinterments had taken place at the Tulare Cemetery in the last five years, three more families have come forward with their stories.

The new protocol would include checking the plot book, the paperwork and the computer records. Before a grave can be dug, Avila said, “all three have to be checked off on a verification sheet.”

Avila said that two years ago he put in place a double verification system but implied that the groundskeepers were no longer following it.

“What I found is that no one was reviewing those sheets. Then employees feel like why are we doing this, no one is looking at it. … Over time they are not doing paperwork at all, and this could be what led to mistakes,” said Avila.

Avila appointed four members of the committee out five: himself, Trustee Charlie Ramos, Vicky Gordon and Sharon Allison Crook. He asked Hollingsworth for suggestions for the fifth member of the committee.

Avila stated, “employees, office staff, management, and members of the community are all involved (in the committee). If we stay vigilant we should never have this problem again.”

Former Trustee Vicki Gilson asked if the new committee would also be reviewing future disinterments and if the standardized paperwork was filled out for the Jacinto and Martinez disinterments.

Aviala responded that he still had not seen the paperwork involved in the double disinterment and that it would be reviewed in closed session. He added that he wasn’t sure if any exists.

Closed Session

During the closed session, the trustees reviewed possible litigation from the Jacinto and Martinez families. They also presumably conducted performance evaluations on Castaneda and groundskeeper David Faria.

Since 2017, six employees have been fired, and staff and groundskeepers have reported a hostile work environment. Faria, a long-time groundskeeper, had feared for months that he would be fired, he said.

Aguilar stated, “The groundskeepers are having to follow the directives given to them by Xavier and Leonor, who then throw the employees under the bus and use them as scapegoats.”

Gilson, who stayed at the meeting until the board emerged from closed session reported, “They both still have jobs.”

A Special Meeting has been called for 9:00am, April 7 at the cemetery office. On the open agenda is the issue of hiring a foreman.

Closed session will discuss anticipated litigation with the Martinez and Jacinto families and Castaneda’s future employment with the cemetery.

23 thoughts on “Tulare Cemetery board meeting vacillates between chaos, calm; board attempts settlement

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  1. If anyone should be fired it’s the office staff the one who helps you pick out your plot when my brother was murdered one of them was rude as hell and my father had to walk out, Leaving me and my sister to finish up

  2. Well written article, hope it may bear fruit. Have doubts about any improvements in light of establishment of another committee to review protocols, typical political ploy to divert attention from immediate actions that should be taken for the betterment of the Tulare Cemetery District. We all know what those actions should comprise.

  3. Catherine, we’re you at the same meeting I attended. You have once again twisted the facts. I was not appointed to thie new committee. I am on the audit committee and that is a full time job. He appointed Vicki Gordon and Sharon Allison-Crook. He did not ask Elaine Hollingsworth for her recommendation.
    If Sigala called the Chief that is news. Steve Harrell called TPD and explained what was going on.

    The crowd was NOT CALM and respectful and was made up predominantly of Caring Cause members. Watch the film posted on both Caring Cause and Tulare Perspective.
    Again an article frought with misinformation and innuendo.

    • Linda, I meant to put Sharon Allison-Crook. Thank you for the correction. Too much to cover in one article. Jose did in fact call the police while watching the live stream. He wanted the police to be forewarned that it was a calm assembly. I agree that Corina Lara was heated but the rest of the crowd was pretty calm. Xavier definitely called on Elaine to suggest a fifth member to the verification committee, its on the stream.

  4. This article is the usual yellow journalism. Catherine I didn’t appoint Linda Maloy to the verification committee, I appointed Sharon Allison Crook and I didn’t ask Elaine anything at all . The officer there would have most certainly removed anyone disrupting the meeting . What busy does Jose have telling the chief of police how to do his job ? You could at least admit your bias to your readers that you favor Alberto, Alex and Jose . How about more facts and less spin ?

    • The police officer most definitely said that he was not there to escort anyone out of the meeting. I then joked with him and asked him to change his mind as I wouldn’t mind being escorted out by a good looking young man. The group of attendees along with the police got a good chuckle. You were inside and didn’t hear the police’s announcement.

      I absolutely do not favor Alberto, Alex or Jose. I have written critically of all three in the past. Selective memory.

      The facebook stream shows you specifically asking Elaine if she had a suggestion for a fifth member of the verification committee. Go back and listen to it.

      • Sorry Catherine but you can’t even get the right names right . You certainly know the difference between Linda and Sharon. You need to go back and watch the video because I did not ask Elaine anything. As for the police officer that I talked to inside . He told me he would escort anyone out for disrupting the meeting. As for you claiming to not support them , well your reporting on them is obvious . When speak you call it a rant or “ fumed “ but when Alberto is yelling you use positive words . Many people see you as bias . You keep proving it to them. There is a huge contrast with the ValleyVoice vs VTD and the SunGazette when reporting on the Tulare Cemetery

    • “I do have one more spot so if anyone is interested you can let me know. I think the more people involved the better. So ELAINE if you know of anybody let me know.” A quote from Xavier from the live stream of the March 25 board meeting.

      I’d like to thank Xavier, Linda and Sharon for being so understanding about my doing two people’s work now on the Valley Voice when I mixed up Linda Maloy and Sharon Allison- Crook as members of the verification committee. A mistake that was fixed within hours btw.

  5. It is quite evident to many that Mr. Avila does not come across as someone being capable of appropriately handling the give and take of discussions during public board meetings.. He “presents” himself as someone who thinks that he and he alone is in control of what is “allowed” to be said in meetings and he and he alone is the only one capable of making such judgments (which really doesn’t say much for his fellow board members). People have the right to “voice” their individual opinion of what they believe is right or wrong and what is working and what isn’t. It seems that Mr. Avila cannot take the heat and perhaps it would be best for him to exit the kitchen, so to speak. Speaking of exiting the kitchen, I certainly hope that Ms. Castaneda is soon to be relieved of her position. She seems to not be a good fit for the position she holds. By so many public remarks that are reported she appears to lack having the sense and sensibility that is required for her work and its environment, neither in training nor temperament. I was also skeptical of Linda Maloy serving on “the committee” after her much publicized filthy finger flipping at someone who was also attending an earlier board meeting. So glad to hear that was a reporting error. Ms. Maloy comes across as a mirror image of Mr. Avila. In my personal opinion two of them is simply a matter of having “two” too many. 🙂

    • Before you write anymore nonsense I will suggest to you as I did Jose Sigala, attend meetings before you repeat what has been posted here. You don’t know me and I definitely do not know you so how can you base your opinions on what Caring Cause or this paper report.

    • Your comments are a perfect example of how someone who wasn’t at the meeting but reads the Valley Voice get misinformed. Try reading the VTD Josh Yager wasn’t at the meeting but watched the video and his article was accurate. Reggie Ellis from the Sun Gazette was there at the meeting too . Catherine wants you to believe what you said . The fact is our decorum does not allow a trustee to attack an employee in public. No other is it against out decorum but it also gives such employees cause for a defamation lawsuit. Especially if the acting chair and board do nothing appropriate . I guarantee the mayor of Tulare would most certainly stop a city council person from making verbal attacks on a city employee.

      • Alberto Aguilar did not attack cemetery employees during his trustee comments and Josh agrees. Alberto did not violate the rules of decorum and Xavier was wrong to cut him off. Watch the tape.

        • lol , Catherine do you even read your own articles . Read the quote from Alberto . As a matter of fact he has attacked cemetery employees repeatedly. You should probably read the cemetery’s rules of decorum. Since when do you speak for others reporters ? Does he agree with you doing this . Yes watch the video . I warned him . I gave him a chance to think about what he said . I told him I was going to let him speak but he could not break decorum , which he does every time . The Room wasn’t cleared because of Alberto. It was cleared because of the people interrupting the meeting. Alberto goes outside to make a speech which is probably a violation of the Brown Act . You always report a different story

  6. I feel mr Van der pole should meet with the fired employees. Mr Avila makes them feel threaten daily, claiming he is their boss. Supervisor needs to come to board meeting, then have one on one with the terminated grounds men. The newly appointed foreman dont know a thing about cemetery, he was a welder…..the city has lost the most important person who does know everything that’s needed to help our families. To date he has not had a smelly meeting???

  7. Mr Avila is and has been doing a great job. Both Aguilar and attendees are disruptive, speak out of turn and act like kids on a playground. I agree with Avila calling police.Good job Xavier Avila. I dont know how you put up with these people constantly causing problems instead of resolving issues in a professional manner. I have attended these meetings and left Caring Caurse TWO TIMES because of their unprofessional opinions and behavior. Let the proper authorities take care of business which they ARE DOING !! People need to butt out and shut up !! They will never be satisfied !! Let’s see them act disruptive at a Countu Supervisor meeting…

    • Sorry but I disagree…. Tulare taxpayers do not have to butt out and shut up. People who have loved ones interred at this cemetery are extremely invested in this cemetery. Friendships are one thing but …………….

      • If you people cannot attend meetings and NOT speak out of turn, be disruptive after being warned resulting in law enforcement being summoned then YES YOU DO NEED TO BUTT OUT and SHUT UP !! You are NOT resolving issues…but being a pain in the you know what !! Stop acting like kindergarten’s on the playground…

  8. The Cemetery has a paid manager. If this person functions in a professional/effective manner there should be little left for a board to do. If the manager is unable to handle the job, he/she should be dismissed. The Cemetery as well as Caring Cause is an embarrassment to our community.

  9. I hope the voters remember this chaos and rude behavior by Supervisor Van der Poel’s appointees to the cemetery board when he is up for re-election. All of this could have been avoided if the supervisors had shown a little good judgment.

  10. Ppl actually care about this? They are dead? Put them in the ground and move on. Humans destroy so much land for so many stupid reasons

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