Cemetery district board answers questions, engages attorney

The Stars & Stripes waves over the Highland Cemetery in Meeker. Bobby Gutierrez photos

MEEKER | The Meeker Cemetery District board met March 15 and responded to public comments raised about recent changes at the cemetery, potential conflicts of interest for board members and made personnel changes.
Board president Joe Conrado introduced attorney Melody Massih of Olszewski, Massih & Maurer, P.C. at the beginning of the meeting, stating the board has engaged Massih’s counsel. Massih is also the attorney for the Town of Meeker.
“My role is going to be to answer questions and give a general outline,” Massih said. “I’m not on retainer.”
Citizens present at the meeting asked about the removal of large rocks and old farming equipment that used to be in place at the cemetery.
Conrado explained that the farm equipment was on loan from the Mintz ranches and has gone back to them at their behest. He said the board has been in discussion with the historical society to display some of the old equipment they have at the cemetery.
“The rocks are a little different deal,” Conrado said, explaining that someone at a funeral drove over one and busted her oil pan, and two of the board members didn’t like the rocks. “I looked at those big rocks around the flagpole as something we had to maintain: weedeat around, snowplow around, and they limited our parking.”
Board member Jan Oldland, who has served on the board the longest, asked why it was decided outside of a board meeting.
Conrado explained “it wasn’t a board action thing, we just kind of decided to take them out.” A backhoe and dump truck from Meeker Sand and Gravel were used to remove the rocks to the gravel pit.
The cemetery was not charged anything for the removal of the rocks, and Conrado said if at any time the district wants the rocks returned, they are available.
“We did not take those with any malice at all. I personally like the looks of it better. That’s strictly my opinion,” said board member Melinda Parker.
Conrado and Melinda Parker stated it is their intention to maintain quality conditions at the cemetery under their term on the board.
“I did not get on this board to have this cemetery go to prairie grass, but I do think this is tax dollars being spent up here and it’s very costly. I think we can cut those costs without turning the grass brown and the cemetery will stay the same,” Parker said.
The Herald Times asked if Conrado involving his family-owned business could be considered a conflict of interest.
“That was a current concern of ours and that’s one of the reasons we’ve retained Melody here,” Conrado replied. “She realizes it’s a small town and there are conflicts of interest. There are ways we have to work around that. I’m not an owner of Meeker Sand and Gravel now; the only thing I own is the property. We used MSG equipment at no charge because the cemetery district didn’t have appropriate equipment.”
Conrado also said in the case of expansion of the cemetery that could involve his personal property, which is adjacent to the cemetery, that he will recuse himself from decisions on property or water issues, if that were to become an issue.
The Herald Times asked Parker if it could be considered a conflict that she is named in a civil lawsuit currently in litigation on another local board. Parker said she was unable to comment on the lawsuit, but Massih said the boards are completely unrelated and the suit has no bearing on Parker’s service on the cemetery board.
Massih suggested the board establish a conflict of interest policy, full disclosure of any potential conflicts, and board members abstaining from decisions that may involve potential conflict involving financial interest.
“It only becomes a conflict when the relationships or the financial interest affect the business,” Massih said.
Massih also recommended that the board hold a workshop to revise its bylaws, establish policies and procedures, create job descriptions and define board duties versus employee duties.
“Right now you don’t have any policies that I can see, and the bylaws don’t cover anything. There are certain policies and procedures that need to be in place for the efficient operation of the district,” Massih said. Because the cemetery district is not under the same statutes as a typical special district, the statues for special districts are used as guidelines, not formalities.
Massih warned the board not to have any discussions about board business with other board members outside of regular meetings, whether in person, text or via email.
“Any of your conversations are discoverable,” she said. “Anything you’re doing think about it being published in the newspaper.”
Office manager Janny Varland opted not to go into executive session for a personnel matter concerning her employment status. Varland officially took the position in January.
Conrado said he was concerned because Varland had contacted the county commissioners twice about the cemetery district without going to the board first.
Tensions have been high at the district since the January budget meeting, during which former board member Bill Jordan, former director Art Cox, Conrado and Varland had a verbal confrontation.
Conrado also said he felt Varland was not fulfilling her duties.
Varland said she contacted the commissioners in an attempt to establish some barriers and some peaceful ways of doing things.
“I wanted an advocate as an employee. It was a hostile work environment from the beginning,” Varland said. “The clarification was merely to try and go up the chain of command. When they’ve (the commissioners) appointed a board over an employee and it’s a hostile board, where’s the protection for the employee?”
After discussion with Massih, the board moved to end Varland’s employment by a 2-1 vote, with Oldland voting nay. Varland stated she was leaving the position under duress.
The board will seek a temporary employee to fill the office manager’s position.
In other business, the board:
– Discussed liability insurance for board officers. Massih said it’s always a good idea if it’s affordable and reasonable.
– Agreed to keep Mike Jones on as interim cemetery director during the season while job descriptions are created. Conrado and Parker both said they believe Jones is “doing a good job.”
– Agreed to advertise for two seasonal workers for the grounds maintenance. Jones said he believes the district can save about $21,000 with two “good hands” over the summer months. Last summer the district employed four grounds employees, including the director.
– Conrado said he has spoken with county road and bridge workers to discuss how to save costs on maintaining the asphalt at the cemetery, and has requested they make a presentation to the board.
– Agreed to rent portable toilets from Redi Services.
– Agreed that expenditures above $2,500 should be brought to the board for approval.