Tulare Public Cemetery District Trustee Alberto Aguilar has received his second censure from his fellow trustees in a little more than 12 months.
The July 28 meeting where Aguilar was censured was punctuated by accusations from Trustee Steve Presant that Aguilar “staged” a vandalized grave site — and the meeting was interrupted six times by verbal altercations between Board Chair Jim Pennington and Aguilar.
The vote was 3-1 to approve the censure with Aguilar voting no and Trustee Carlos Ramos absent.
Aguilar’s censure was for violating sections B, G and J of the district bylaws in his handling of a complaint by Anisabel Fernandes over the burial of her father, Ildebrando Almeida, on June 24.
Trustee Xavier Avila supported the censure because Aguilar disseminated a written statement agreeing with the merits of the Fernandes’ complaint over the condition of her father’s grave before the district’s board had a chance to discuss it.
“He is acting on his own apart from the board,” said Avila, adding that not acting as a member of the board is grounds for a censure.
During the special meeting the three trustees agreed that Aguilar had violated the following bylaws.
Section B states that the trustees “shall exercise sound and prudent judgment in conducting the business of the District and shall deal always in an ethical, honest, straightforward, open and above-board manner.”
Section G states, “The board shall act collectively and the members will not individually involve themselves in the day-to-day operations of the District. They shall function as a board rather than as individuals to adopt public policy and board procedures for guidance of the board and staff.”
Section J states, “the board shall initiate legal action when appropriate and shall vigorously defend the District as required.”
Aguilar retorted in a written statement concerning the censure that he believed he did his due diligence in accordance with the Health and Safety Code.
“All trustees shall exercise their independent judgment on behalf of the interest of the residents, property owners, and the public as a whole ….. and not solely the interests of the board of supervisors that appoint them.”
In contrast to the board, Fernandes did not agree with the censure and was very appreciative of Aguilar’s prompt response to her family’s complaint.
In an email to the Valley Voice concerning the special meeting Fernandes wrote, “The District Manager was made aware that I made my initial verbal complaint to Tulare Public Cemetery Board Member, Alberto Aguilar on June 24, 2022 (The same day of my father’s burial service). Mr. Aguilar went the next day to see for himself the condition of my father’s gravesite and he confirmed the undignified and disrespectful condition it was left in and also how the flowers were mishandled and destroyed.”
Aguilar concurred, “I can unequivocally state that what I witnessed is disgraceful, undignified and morally and ethically wrong. The manner in which the cemetery district conducted the burial of Mr. Almeida is shameful, irresponsible and inconsistent with the promise that the district has made to the public.”
Fernandes has requested a refund of approximately $5000 in burial and flower expenses.
Aguilar was censured in July of 2021 over an alleged breach of attorney client privilege in an email he sent to the Valley Voice on May 22.
According to County Counsel lawyer Aaron Zaheen, “Included in that email were items only ever discussed by the board in closed session.”
The “confidential items” were never specified nor was the nature of the breach of attorney client privilege.
On the evening of June 24 Fernandes went to Aguilar’s house to speak to him and his wife about the “undignified handing of her father’s burial services at Kern Cemetery.”
“She explained to us what the family found was very disturbing, distressful and heart breaking condition of her father’s grave site,” Aguilar wrote in a statement to the board.
The following day on June 25 Aguilar visited the grave site and stated, “I observed and photographed my finding […] and concur with the merits of the complaint.”
Among the many alleged problems were debris that had to be removed by the family before the service, the grave was covered in tall weeds, cemetery equipment was placed around the grave site, and no canopy was provided.
A few hours after the service the family returned to the cemetery to find a pile of loose dirt on the grave covered in footprints, and the flowers set up for the service thrown on the ground.
Debra Thrasher, whose family has a plot at a district cemetery, had nearly identical complaints as Fernandes and spoke during public comment at the district’s June 23 board meeting.
Thrasher’s complaints were, among others, that the area around her husband’s grave was cluttered with cemetery equipment and that the top to the vault was left out by the grave creating tripping hazard for the attendees.
She added that the cemetery only provided one canopy for 175 people. The next day she found all the expensive flowers thrown on her husband’s grave and the arrangement that had been on his coffin placed on someone else’s grave.
On Monday June 27 Aguilar reported his findings to District Manager Clara Bernardo. She allegedly told Aguilar that a reason for the unkempt condition of the cemetery grounds was because they were short staffed.
On July 6, Fernandes submitted a formal complaint to the cemetery outlining the problems with her father’s service and requesting a reimbursement.
Fernandes gave the district 10 days to respond or she would “make an official complaint to the State of California Department of Consumer Affairs- Cemetery and Funeral Bureau and will also consider taking legal action.”
Though Bernardo had been informed of the extent of the problems with the Almeida burial on June 27 she did not respond to Fernandes’ complaint until July 15 after the July 11 publication of the Valley Voice article.
Bernardo’s response was complete with pictures, weather charts, and the signed contract for the service. She thanked Fernandes for reaching out and apologized for the condition of her husband’s grave but said that the “cemetery has met its obligations and has provided a dignified resting place for your father.”
“As such, the Tulare Public Cemetery District will not be offering a refund.”
Fernandes responded to Bernardo a few days later saying, “This entire incident and the way its being handled by the Tulare Public Cemetery District has been very stressful to the point where it is affecting my family and I mentally and emotionally. In my mother’s case, it has been affecting her physically as well. Not holding any accountability on behalf of the Tulare Public Cemetery District is appalling and completely unacceptable.”
At the end of the letter Fernandes reiterated that if the matter is not resolved she may pursue legal action.
To complicate the problems facing TPCD is a large dose of conspiracies.
Yolanda Allen, a former member of the TPCD audit committee, requested that her comments be removed from the article posted July 11, More Complaints about Tulare Cemetery in letter to District Manager about burial.
Honoring her request, the Valley Voice removed Allen’s comments which in turn deleted the thread.
In addition, at Fernandes’ request, the Valley Voice deleted all identifying information from the same article only leaving their specific complaints. In deleting the family’s information one of the pictures also got deleted.
Responding to the changes Allen posted on Facebook, “If you’re looking for the article, the VV has now deleted this image and all comments related to it as of 11am today. Cover-up?”
Linda Curti-Miguel followed up with “You got to love screenshots” and included a picture of the Fernandes’ grave that had been deleted from the complaint article with a big arrow pointing to Aguilar’s car in the background.
Presant took it a step further during the July 28 Special Meeting, accusing Aguilar of staging the scene at the Fernandes’ grave then sending the pictures to the media to manufacture a conflict.
Presant said during the July 28 Special Meeting that he came by the district office the first week of July and saw Alberto’s truck in the parking lot and two men standing in the vicinity of the Fernandes’ grave “doing who knows to the site.”
“I don’t know. Were they cleaning up the site? Were they staging something for photographs? I don’t know it just really concerned me.”
Presant added that soon after, pictures of the unkempt grave were published in the Valley Voice.
Pennington also expressed concerns about who took the pictures of the condition of the grave and noted that Aguilar’s truck was in the background of one of the pictures causing suspicion.
Avila said to Presant and Pennington that if they think Aguilar staged the scene “why don’t you just ask him” and turned to Aguilar.
Aguilar laughed at the prospect and said he did not stage anything.
Fernandes expressed frustration after the July 28 special meeting over the fact that the board was spending time censuring Aguilar instead of fixing the problems at the cemetery.
“This meeting was live-streamed and can be viewed on the Caring Cause Facebook Page. The public has the opportunity to view the live-stream and witness for themselves the diversion tactics used by certain Board Members by intentionally not addressing all of the concerns mentioned in my initial complaint letter and my follow up letter,” an email from Fernandes to the Valley Voice reads.
“Instead, the focal point by the majority of the Board Members was to censure Mr. Aguilar for agreeing with my complaints about the cemetery’s handling of the burial and treatment of my father’s gravesite. Is it true since Mr. Aguilar refuses to be part of a “Good Ole Boys” system, he’s being reprimanded by his peers for speaking up on behalf of the public? I really hope that’s not the case.”
Trustee for the Visalia Public Cemetery, Geneva Philpot, made this observation after the July 28 special meeting:
“I have been watching the Tulare Public Cemetery meetings for some time and have come to the conclusion that the board would rather play the blame game instead of admitting there are problems and getting a plan to fix them. There is poor leadership with no training on how to run a public agency. Most of the time at meetings is trying to censure Alberto instead of actually listening to what he is trying to say,” Philpot wrote.
“The last meeting Xavier was on his phone doing something while Alberto was speaking. The board’s goal is to get him off the board instead of trying to learn from the knowledge that he has gained over the years. Alberto attends other cemetery districts meetings and gains some ideas, but the board does not want to know about anything that might be working for other districts. Caring cause members need to get a resolution going to present to the Board of Supervisors demanding that changes be made. A district should be moving forward not being where they were four years ago and being defensive to any criticism that is brought up.”