Drama continues at Tulare Cemetery: infighting, litigation, and Aguilar’s second censure

Tulare Public Cemetery District Trustee Alberto Aguilar has received his second censure from his fellow trustees in a little more than 12 months.

Flower arrangements during the Almeida service

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.”

Flower arrangement after the service that evening with the cross upside down and the vases on their sides

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.

The complaint

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.”

No canopy was provided because Bernardo said that there was shade and that it was only 85 degrees

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.

Conspiracies anyone?

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.

In sum….

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.”

22 thoughts on “Drama continues at Tulare Cemetery: infighting, litigation, and Aguilar’s second censure

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  1. My written statement that I submitted to the Board of Trustees and District Manager, Clara Bernardo was submitted Under Penalty of Perjury and based on my observations which I photographed on the morning of June 25, 2022. I shared my photos and viedo recordings with Clara Bernardo and Grounds Supervisor, David Faria on Monday, June 27, 2022. I made both of them aware of the unsafe and unkempt condition of the cemetery grounds. I recorded 50 photos that were shown to David and Clara, to make them aware of the situation, and their only excuse was due tobeing short staffed. Being short staffed is no excuse for not preparing the grave site area and/or destroying the family’s flower arrangements. I sent copies of the photos to Jim Pennington, Chairman of the Board and Clara Bernardo for distribution during the Special Board Meeting, but they refused to distribute the photos, so I made the hard copies of the photos available during the mmeeting, Anyone wanting to see the photos that were provided to Clara Bernardo, Jim Pennington and the Board are welcome to contact me (559) 687-1986 or [email protected].

  2. I NEVER requested that my comments be removed! That is a blatant lie! Show me where! Show me! You can’t because it didn’t happen. More lies by a biased “reporter”.

    • I did say you got to love screenshot but I did NOT I repeat!!! I did not share the picture of the family’s casket!! Never ever would I do that!!! You best clear that up Catherin!!! No not rub my name into something I did not do !!! That needs to be retracted immediately!!!

        • Catherine VV. I did post any pictures of the gravesite!!! Clear it up immediately!!! I did say you got to love screenshots!!! That’s it !!! You need to publication your correction immediately!!!

        • Clear my name up Catherine… The heading of your article is Drana continue. You are the one causing Drama… please retract your remark that I posted a picture … I did not post any pictures.

          • If they (the cemetery board) didn’t create the “drama” by publicly playing their in-house family feud war games against each other in the public eye for all to see there wouldn’t be much for Catherine to write about. I don’t know if this bereaved family’s complaint is overblown, staged, or has legal merit but one thing I do agree with Xavier about is (stop the presses… lol) that this complaint should not have been handled the way it was to assure that it went viral. What has been accomplished? The bereaved family will never receive the satisfaction that they feel they deserve. The family feud inside the cemetery board will never be resolved to the satisfaction of all who have watched it play out over the years. All this gamesmanship going around with this board, too many perceived personalized agendas. Catherine will continue to do what she does best, report on the trials and tribulations of the cemetery and other subjects that she feels will interest her readers. That’s her job folks and if you don’t like the way she does it then simply stop seeking out this paper to read. Luckily for the Valley Voice there are far more many folks out here in this world who do appreciate this paper and the articles that are published….. even when we don’t necessary agree on the how and why something is being reported on from time to time. And when we do….we opine. 🙂

        • Catherine I did not say if they think Aguiar stage the scene. My remark came after Jim Pennington wanted to know who took the pictures. I told him why don’t do ask him
          ( Alberto) if took them . You need to fix that . Jim and Steve do not think there is a conspiracy . They were asking questions. You are sensationalizing this story at the expense of a grieving family. You and Alberto are exploiting a grieving family.

  3. I meant to say I did Not posts any pictures what so ever on the post !!! Repeat!!! I did not post any pictures what so ever on that post!!! Retract it immediately.

  4. I had to laugh at Xavier Avila’s comments. He should have had many censurers over doing things without board approval in the past.
    When you point a finger other fingers are pointing back to you. The rules don’t count if you break them but they count if others do. This has gone on far too long.

  5. Comments I made was not as a trustee of the Visalia Public Cemetery but as a member of the public with loved ones buried at the Tulare Cemetery.

  6. Geneva can you even name one thing and provide evidence for your accusations against me ? Alberto clearly violated our bylaws .

    What credibility do you have ? You were on the Visalia Cemetery Board when your district manager and friend Donna Shores embezzled over a million dollars from the cemetery under your watch . She was also accused buried old bones.
    The Tulare Civil Grand Jury warned you of wrong doing and you ignore them . Why didn’t you listen to them ? Was it you that claimed there was no wrong doing ? Here is the article
    https://www.visaliatimesdelta.com/story/news/2019/09/25/former-visalia-cemetery-manager-held-answer-embezzlement-charges/2439726001/

      • Good question .?The board investigated what happened and took appropriate action. People were held accountable for their actions. Two employees lost their jobs . The Board voted unanimously to deliver a letter of wrong doing to the Tulare Police Department. Nothing was swept under the rug or covered up . I called a special board meeting while I was talking to the families. We had that meeting the very next day . The families we treated with respect and we reached a mutual agreement with them . We did our best to correct what happened. We were transparent with everything the law allows. Employees personal files can not be made public. I admitted to the Spanish speaking Telemundo News station in an interview that the cemetery was wrong. An attorney had instructed me to not admit any wrongdoing but I went against that because the family deserved honesty. You can look up that interview and read it for yourself. However the ValleyVoice wrote a lot of twisted articles. Go read the Sun Gazzette and the Visalia Times Delta’s articles and compare them to the ValleyVoice. The ValleyVoice tried so hard to turn that event into something else . The ValleyVoice defended people who were lying . Now compare that to Geneva Philpot who was warned of wrong doing by the Grand Jury back in 2007 . Geneva dismissed it . Geneva was friends with her employee who stolen over a million dollars. Read the article Geneva is quoted a lot . This was so bad that jurors who investigated the Visalia Cemetery some ten years later basically said we told you something was wrong . We warned you but you didn’t listen. Geneva has no credibility. Boards can not control everything an employee does wrong . However when something does happen a board has every obligation to correct what happened . Thanks for asking . You deserve the truth!

  7. Not so merry Aguilar versus Avila and his not so merry board of cemetery curmudgeons. Will this endless infighting ever end? Not until this entire board is replaced. Not one person on that board has clean hands when it comes to this ongoing vendetta Avila and his minions have against Aguilar and Aguilar’s vendetta against them.

    At least District Manager Clara Bernardo’s letter to Ms. Fernandes appears to be reassuring and informative in regards to her fact finding. Thanks goodness bereaved family members don’t have to deal with board members while they attend to purchasing burial plots or niches. Ms. Bernardo’s seemingly professionalism and commitment to the cemetery, its employees and to the families in this community appears to be the one consistent thing about the cemetery. I don’t remember reading anything to the contrary about her, unlike the previous manager.

    It has taken many years for the cemetery to get into such poor shape and this endless drought no doubt exacerbates poor ground conditions. It may never get back to the beautiful looking cemetery that it was a decade ago. Cemeteries don’t always age well; headstones fall apart or disintegrate, droughts kill green grasses, bushes, and plants, aged and sickly trees fall on grave sites. It takes skilled workers to address ground conditions as well as burials and it takes a well staffed trained crew to assure smoother burials and the surrounding grounds. Hopefully time will take care of achieving a workable number of permanent trained grounds and burial personnel and the hiring of a landscaping crew.

    • Wake up Barbara , I’m glad you recognize the goods things about Clara but this article just like the others are actually meant to shed Clara in a negative light . Alberto did not work to resolve this issue. He sent the family’s email to the ValleyVoice. Clara got the email from the family the same day the article was posted. The ValleyVoice isn’t telling the whole story . Alberto clearly violated our bylaws. Ask the ValleyVoice how I voted on a motion to censure Alberto a few meetings back . The motion failed 2 – 2 . I voted No not to censure him . So their is no vendetta. Your problem is you excuse the yellow journalism by the ValleyVoice . This Family was exploited by the ValleyVoice and ill advised by Alberto. Had Alberto tried to get the family to discuss this with Clara it most likely would had been resolved but then poor Catherine wouldn’t have another hit piece to write.

  8. Catherine,
    1. This was Aguilar’s third censure not his second.
    2. I never requested my comments be removed.
    3. I posted the screenshot on which a giant arrow was placed that pointed at Aguilar’s truck, not the person you named.
    4. You have never spoken to me nor requested to do so despite using my name in an article.

  9. These diversion tactics are getting old and people like myself are finally waking up and paying attention to all the shenanigans going on at the Tulare Public Cemetery.

    Is it true we have a District Manager currently in place who has zero experience ever managing a cemetery prior to taking the job, let alone handling TWO cemeteries?

    Is it true that Mr Avila was the biggest advocate on the Board in getting her hired? If so, this is starting to make much more sense why he feels compelled to back her up all the time.

    In my opinion this may be a huge reason why the cemetery is failing and more and more complaints keep pouring in.

    I also witnessed watching a few recent live-streamed Board Meetings where Mr. Aguilar was pointing out these issues to the rest of the Board only to have it all fall on deaf ears. There were also a few times he was actually laughed at by a fellow Board Member.

    What happened at the Almeida funeral service and at the gravesite is unacceptable. The sad part is that this entire incident continues to be ignored.

    You would think that the District Manager and the Grounds Supervisor would have the professional courtesy to take immediate action to remedy the situation once informed by Mr. Aguilar of what he witnessed. But instead, they neglected to do something and waited TWENTY DAYS to finely just level out the dirt.

    The District Manager’s continued excuses in her letter regarding the conditions of the cemetery, the preparation of the funeral service, the outside temperature and handling of the gravesite holds no merit. For starters she wasn’t present during the funeral service, nor was she present during or after the lowering of the casket. I was one of 20 + witnesses who attended the funeral service who can testify regarding the undignified conditions and preparations of the gravesite and also how hot it was that day and no canopy was provided when it was definitely needed. I am also one of 10 witnesses who returned to the gravesite on the same day after the lowering of the casket who can testify regarding the carelessness and unprofessionalism of the handling of the gravesite and witnessing all the flower that were destroyed.

    There are many of us who are going to hold the District Board accountable. We are tired of all the excuses and hypothetical statements. Actions speaks louder than words…. We need to start seeing improvements and there also needs to be resolution when things are not properly handled.

    • Alex . Thank you for your comments and I appreciate that you are willing to state your name . I can assure you that the cemetery board and Manager Clara Bernardo have handled this with sincerity. To answer your questions . Yes it’s true Clara had no prior cemetery experience . We had over 30 applications and not one had prior cemetery experience. Clara is very experienced in running a business. She was managing Roche Oil when she applied and Roche Oil wrote a letter expressing how valuable she is to them . They understood it was in her heart to work for the cemetery . As Clara stated when she lost her Son her heart now was at the place where her Son rest . The Martinho family who Clara had managed their family business also wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for Clara . Out of all the candidates she was the only one who had letters on recommendations. Yes is is true I was the biggest advocate to hire her . Would you work for someone who didn’t defend you when you are getting attacked with false accusations ?

      When Alberto informed Clara of the situation she did take action. She did go review the grave site and talked with the groundsmen . We do believe that there was some branches and weeds that should not have been there . Alberto never indicated that Clara should contact the family. The Cemetery can not take a complaint from anyone other than the family itself. Alberto mislead this family. Since Clara had to legally abide by the contract you would think Alberto would accept that and explain this to the family . Did he even bother to explain this ? Did he encourage the family to talk to Clara ?

      As for the Canopy the family signed a contract . The cemetery has an option to not provide a canopy. In this case the large tree provided more shade then the canopy . The canopies only provide a limited amount of shade . Which means a normal size group of people will not have shade. I have attended many funerals where the majority of the people had to stand in the sun. So while I understand you say it was needed. The cemetery can not and never will provide shade for everyone.
      As for the flowers. The contract also gives the family the option of taking the flowers with them and if they don’t the cemetery will place them on the grave . The reason is because in the winter the wind will knock over the flower stands . In the summer the sprinklers will soak the material in the flower arrangement which makes them top heavy and they fall over . Before we started laying them down the complainants were about flowers being knock over and yes some times they also get vandalized.
      Again the contract clearly states all this and the office personal verbal go over this with the families. As for the condition of the grave site after the burial. Looking at the pictures it looks nominal. The flowers are arranged how they normally arrange them . Please point out the problem? The cemetery will never guarantee how a grave is going to look right after a burial . It may take a day or two to get it correct. The dirt on that grave was very dry and powder like and required some water from the sprinklers at night to properly deal with it . Some grave will need a few days to get right but there is nothing in the contract that states how it is to look right after the Sevice . Forgive the legal talk but this is how disputes are decided. Was there a breach of contract. One would have to read it and point out where there was .

      Alberto never indicated the family wanted her to contact them Clara received the email from the Family July 11th . I found out about it because of the article in the ValleyVoice. Sorry but Alberto didn’t handle this right . He mislead the family. I don’t know what he told them but my guess which is based on his letter he presented at the board was that he failed to explain the contract. He failed to encourage the family to contact the office and have a conversation. He let the family believe the cemetery was wrong for not providing a canopy and the cemetery was wrong for placing the flowers on the grave. Even if his personal opinion was different, the least he could have done was explain it from the context of the contract. I understand how emotional the situation can be but things need to be properly communicated regardless. Alberto is also the one that gave the families email to the ValleyVoice. I know you think he is right but his actions while well intended , only served to exploit the family. This is not the first family to be exploited . It was only an opportunity for Alberto to grandstand for himself and the ValleyVoice to write another article for their own benefit not the families. Had. They had the best interest of the family they would have waited for the cemetery to properly address their it .

      You seem to be an honest person so let me ask you . Do you really think all this attention actually served the best interest of the family ? Do you think it would have been more appropriate for the family to communicate with Clara before going to a Newspaper. Other Newspapers would have advised that the family attempt to work things out with the cemetery first before going public. In other words if the family had meet first and the family felt justice wasn’t served then that’s when you go to the media. I feel nothing but sympathy and compassion for the family. Going through the loss of a loved one is stressful enough and adding unnecessary stress like this doesn’t help start the grieving process . The very fact that a Alberto gave the families letter to the ValleyVoice without their knowledge or permission says it all . Certain people have no problem using grieving families as pawns in their agenda. Here is my number if you want to talk (559)-707-2497

  10. The master manipulator is at it again.
    Xavier – can you not just “Let it Go?”
    So very tired of your comments and your narcissistic attitude that you and only you know what’s best.

  11. Catherine do you really think I care that you are getting tried of my comments ? You know one day you are going to really mess up with someone and get sued for libel . Why don’t answer the people who have asked you to correct the falsehood of what you said about them . Also when it comes to the Tulare Cemetery why don’t you just let it go ? You have exploited family after family just so you can have something to write about . You take advantage of grieving families . Why did you post the letter from the family without their knowing? That was very unethical of you ! You are only using Alberto. If anyone is a Master Manipulator it’s you .

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