Monday, December 9, 2019
[Tulare County] Grand jury investigates Tulare Public Cemetery
Blog note: so much for secrecy.
The Tulare County Grand Jury sent two requests for financial information to the Tulare Public Cemetery District. The first request dated October 10 asked for information about delinquent accounts. The second letter dated October 25 requested detailed financial information from January 2017 to October 2019.
All information was due November 12, but because of the large amount requested an extension was granted. According to cemetery manager Leonor Castaneda, the request took over 100 hours of gathering and scanning.
All information was handed over to the grand jury on November 26.
A special board meeting was called on November 26 by board members Alberto Aguilar, Vicki Gilson and Carlene Ringius to get an update on the inquiry and attempt to resolve other unfinished cemetery business.
During the special meeting everyone claimed they had no idea who filed the complaint against the district or if the grand jury was just doing a random audit.
Gilson said she “was just as surprised as anybody” when the cemetery district received the inquiry and made a point of saying that it was looking into the previous cemetery board also.
Aguilar believed the inquiry sprang from the cemetery’s irregular financial reports. Aguilar and Gilson felt that there were many irregularities concerning the cemetery’s revolving fund, how employees were paid, and in the manner in which their pay was calculated. Aguilar stated that Castaneda repeatedly violated cemetery policy by calculating employee pay by taking an average over 12 months. The district policy states that pay be based on time cards, not averages.
Board Chair Xavier Avila disregarded Aguilar’s financial concerns, stating that Aguilar had a history of constantly seeing things that are not there. “He always comes up with goose eggs,” said Avila.
Aguilar strongly disagreed.
Avila said of the inquiry, “I believe the cemetery board is being falsely accused of violating rules for political reasons .”
He continued, “I believe this is a political smear and Alberto Aguilar and Vicky Gilson likely had a hand in the grand jury’s request .”
Unable to stay out of the fray, Tulare City Council member Carlton Jones chimed in on Facebook, “whats up X? I hear you’re under investigated by the Grand Jury. Is that true?”
Aguilar has filed complaints about the Tulare Public Cemetery District in the past, with the Tulare County District Attorney and the grand jury, but said he did not file the current complaint.
Aguilar said that all the information he has cited during meetings are public documents and that the “grand jury is just doing their job.”
The grand jury has requested such information as bank statements, employee pay rate, time cards, income statements from cemetery assets, tax returns, W-2s from January 2017 to October 2019.
Castaneda said that she compiled what she could but that the time cards from January through September 2017 were missing except for Jerry Ramos. Ramos was a former groundskeeper who threatened to sue the district for overtime pay earlier this year but settled for an undisclosed amount.
Castaneda blamed Gilson for taking all the personnel records to her house and losing the time cards. Gilson countered by saying that in the ensuing chaos of September 2017, when the old management secretly quit the district, she did take the records home for safe keeping. Gilson said she returned all the records to the cemetery vault soon after.
Former cemetery board member Phillip Deal confirmed that “chaos” was an understatement the month of September of 2017. He confirmed that he, and the then assistant manager, Christine Silva, saw the time cards in the vault after October 2017.
Gilson insinuated that Castaneda must have been the one to lose the time cards. But Avila believes that Gilson is trying to “cover up some things she did when she took over the office in 2017.” He said that Aguilar and Gilson have been verbally abusive to the office manager and other staff.
“I have told them many times to stop,” he said.
Since the special board meeting, grand jury member John Hobbs has demanded that Avila show up for an interview on December 16 at 9:30am.
Calling from a blocked number during work hours and not leaving a call back number, Hobbs’ message to Avila said, “I’m a bit perplexed as to why you did not answer the phone…..If I do not hear from you by Friday of this week I will proceed with a subpoena.”
On hearing the voice message, Avila hunted down Hobbs’ phone number, found it, and responded that he would be happy to sit for an interview. “I am very easy to get a hold of and will talk to anyone,” Avila said, clearly miffed by Hobbs’ tone.
A Bad Marriage
The mudslinging didn’t stop with the discussion of the grand jury inquiry. Gilson, Ringius and Aguilar voiced their displeasure that the November 28 (Thanksgiving) meeting had been canceled and not rescheduled, this despite the fact that there was so much unresolved business and that the district was being investigated by the grand jury.
Avila didn’t object to a special meeting but expressed his suspicions that the three board members called the meeting for the 26th to sabotage Castaneda’s efforts to get the information to the grand jury. He did not believe that there was anything pressing to discuss that couldn’t wait one week.
Frustration was evident with how glacially the cemetery’s business gets done, or not at all. Gilson and Aguilar recited a list of unresolved issues that have lingered for months, and even years, that need resolution now or by the end of the year.
Besides several other grievances, including no typed-up minutes since July, Gilson and Aguilar said the Tulare Cemetery’s vase policy to help reduce the mosquito population had not been posted, even though the board had declared at its August 29 meeting that this was “a matter of urgency” and had directed Castaneda to post the policy immediately.
Other issues were the fact that the cemetery’s website was not up and running and that the new software, Pontem, was not yet functional. Both of these items have been discussed for years and a cemetery website will be required by the state in 2020.
Aguilar announced at the meeting that he had received a subpoena from Bruce Greene, formerly the lawyer of Health Care Conglomerates Association. The former Tulare Hospital Board members and Greene are being sued by the Tulare Public Hospital District for not fulfilling their fiduciary duty. Aguilar said the same could happen to the cemetery board if it does not get its act together.
While several board members have complained that Castaneda is not competent to get the work done, Avila chalked up each concern as an opportunity for the board to attack and harass Castaneda. He also chastised Gilson for making disparaging remarks about Castaneda during an open meeting, saying any comments concerning personnel should be done in closed session.
Avila said that only a small fraction of Castaneda’s job is the work generated by the board of directors. The majority of her work is dealing with the public and grieving family members who many times are inconsolable or angry.
“Leonor is very good with the public and not many people could do what she does. She would be difficult to replace,” he said.
Still Managing to Go Forward
Despite the constant fighting, progress has been made at the cemetery. The vase policy to discourage mosquito breeding has been implemented for a few months and is posted in the editorial section of this issue of the Valley Voice. Signs regarding this policy will be posted on the cemetery grounds by time of publication.
The website will also be up and running by publication of this edition and the new software will be installed by January. In addition, it is agreed by all that the grounds look much better than before the new board and management took over.
The meeting, wherein was discussed many other issues such as security measures, the annual audit, and a vault policy, can be viewed on Caring Cause’s Facebook.
The next Tulare Public Cemetery Board meeting will be held at 1pm December 18 at the district office on Kern Street. This will be Ringius’ last meeting, as she has announced her retirement from the board. Anyone wanting to apply for Ringius’ seat can notify Tulare County Supervisor Pete Vander Poel.
December 4, 2019
By Catherine Doe