Thursday, August 30, 2012
Cemetery drama intensifies
By SUE WATSON
A large group of people attended the Holly Springs Board of Aldermen meeting last week to express concern over the handling of the cemetery.
A number of benches had been removed from gravesides and some of those affected voiced opposition to the way the historic Hill Crest Cemetery is being cared for.
Before allowing the community to express its voice, Mayor Andre’ DeBerry prefaced his remarks to the group after alderman Russell Johnson called attention to the large number of people in the board room.
DeBerry said the board shouldn’t be arbitrary in its requirement that people get on the agenda prior to voicing a community concern.
“The procedure is to call the office and ask to be on the agenda,” he said. “A lot of people call and are advised their matters can be handled by a department head.”
Nell Cassatta spoke for the group, saying she was visiting her loved one’s grave and the bench had been removed. Upon further inquiry she learned 10 or more had been removed from gravesides and put under a tree down in the meadow.
Cassatta wanted to know who had ordered the benches removed.
DeBerry said the building and grounds supervisor made the decision.
Cassatta said her common sense would tell her that to remove that many benches after all these years was not good judgement. She said she was informed the mayor had ordered them removed.
Larry Miller, supervisor of building and grounds, took responsibility for moving them, saying he had stumbled on one that was out of place and asked his men to remove them.
Cassatta said Miller had said the mayor had ordered them removed because employees were tripping over the benches.
“I was told I was the first one who came down there fussing,” she said. “I am glad to see them back there and I would like to know who ordered them to be put back.”
Alderman Garrie Colhoun entered the fray, saying he was called by a constituent about the benches and was also told about flathead stones and a new policy on cemetery management. He said Miller told him a policy had been given to the mayor, who had given it to board attorney Ki Jones.
Colhoun said Miller took credit for moving the benches to make it easier to cut the grass.
“I said, ‘I don’t think you should move those benches and the copings (boundaries). They are grandfathered,” Colhoun said. “Mr. Miller said he might have jumped the gun. I said, ‘you better put them back soon. It’s not going to make it right, but it will sure smooth some feelings.’ ”
Miller said Colhoun’s account was “basically correct.”
“Is this something that is going to be permanent, or are you trying to appease me?” Cassatta asked.
“There is a contractural agreement involved,” said DeBerry. “You paid for the plot – obviously it is…”
Alderman Russell Johnson asked what stage was the policy development at.
Attorney Ki Jones said he did not come prepared to discuss it.
“All of us are going to have to come to terms with man hours that are excessive,” he said. “It takes up to a week sometimes to just cut the grass at the cemetery. I would hope we will be mindful of adjustments. We must find ways to address issues of headstones. That cemetery is hallowed ground. But it is still property of the City of Holly Springs. I have paid for plots for myself and my children. Keep in mind to make it conducive and feasible to maintain.”
Cassatta asked if cemetery rules could be posted at the gates.
“We are not trying to infringe on anyone,” the mayor said. “My contention all along is the ownership of the cemetery is the City of Holly Springs and everyone has a covenant with the city to maintain it.”
Cassatta said the “whole thing was handled in an almost despicable way and was very, very wrong.”
DeBerry replied that all people are fallible.
Johnson added that people’s right to talk is important to resolve issues of public concern.
Johnnie Ree Bagley-Johnson spoke.
“I would like to apologize. I feel like they should have been notified,” she said. “So please accept our apology.”
Janna Stanton, with Holly Springs Funeral Home, then asked to speak about changes in policy with respect to raised headstones versus ground level ones. She said she had a large number of stones on order.
DeBerry said the new section would be designated for a place where no monuments would be allowed.
Stanton said only new stones that were purchased would fall under any policy changes.
Colhoun said the board of aldermen has never discussed changing policies at Hill Crest Cemetery.
DeBerry said the process works first from a draft policy recommended by the supervisor, then the policy would come before the board of aldermen.
“I want to make sure we (aldermen) are in the mix,” Colhoun said.
Stanton advised that there are certain standards that cemeteries must follow if they limit monuments to ground level and that other considerations also must be realized.
“Grass will grow over flat stones and you will still have to weed-eat, because Hill Crest is a very sandy cemetery,” she said.
Mary Walker Gatewood asked, “Wouldn’t it be helpful to have input from the community?”
“It is a good idea,” said DeBerry.
Gatewood asked that due care be taken in selecting those who would represent the community in giving advice.
In later discussions after most concerned citizens had left, Miller presented a few pages of a suggested cemetery policy draft for the board to review.
“About the benches, I think the policy addresses down the road, but the current problem we have still exists about the benches,” he said.
Payne asked if a citizens committee would work with Miller on the policy.
DeBerry said he did not have to meet with a committee to construct a policy.
Payne said he would like to have committee input.
“We can’t govern the entire city based on committee; we would get bogged down,” DeBerry said.
He said Miller could talk with the funeral director and some lay people to get advice but that the policy “does not affect every person in the city.”
“It’s going to take more than two sets of eyes,” alderman Calvin James said.
DeBerry said he wants to “be careful about opening it up to a committee.”
“We could be walking down a slippery slope,” he said.
Johnson said he wanted to discuss personnel in executive session regarding the cemetery.
In a separate interview regarding the cemetery and citizens’ rights to be heard, Johnson provided these additional comments.
“It’s not a political thing,” he said. “People have rights. We have authority as a board and sometimes we have to allow people to speak who may not be on the agenda or who could not get on the agenda.”
Johnson said the mayor should be consistant in handling community concerns. Sometimes the mayor allows people to speak who are not on the agenda and others are told to come back after they get on the agenda, he said.
“We are public servants and officials elected to serve the people,” Johnson continued. “I definitely think people should have a voice inside and outside the board room. Sometimes a person comes in who is not on the agenda and we let them talk.”
He added that community concerns should be taken up first before the board business in general is taken up. That way guests who want to address the mayor and board are able to do so without having to wait until the end of the meeting to know if they are going to be allowed to address the board. He said he is concerned about the way board meetings are handled in that regard.
“It’s a concern of mine,” Johnson said. “We ask for reports and they (department heads) say there are no in-depth reports, then all this breaks loose on us.”
He said the cemetery business and the cemetery itself is sacred and as such should be handled with respect.
“I feel very strongly that because something (burial grounds) is in place and the cemetery is on the historic register, we have to keep it up as we have all along,” Johnson said.
“We have money sitting there for years (a grant to restore old monuments and clean the stones) and it is not being used.
“I think Holly Springs has a whole lot to offer, if we can just get it going. I think the community is going to have to come together to move the city forward.”
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