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.
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.