Edgartown selectmen will turn cemetery care over to highway department

Conflict between commission and superintendent appears unresolvable.

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Headstones at Edgartown's cemetery. — Rich Salztberg

The Edgartown board of selectmen met with the cemetery commissioners Tuesday to discuss their plan to turn over the maintenance of the town’s four cemeteries to the highway department. The plan would eliminate the position of Edgartown cemetery superintendent, currently held by Jennifer Morgan.

Ongoing animosity between the town’s cemetery commission and the cemetery superintendent led to a review by West Tisbury–based consultants Susan and Robert Wasserman of Strategic Policy Partnerships. In July, the consultants presented their findings at a joint meeting of the town’s personnel board, town counsel, the cemetery commission, selectmen, and the cemetery superintendent and her attorney.

The 13-page review determined, “The situation with charges and counter-charges from both sides has become irreconcilable. Neither party is able to work with the other to resolve issues or conduct normal business. Everyone seems to be afraid of lawsuits and/or being fired. Our review determined that given the history of these conflicts, the hard lines now drawn, the perceptions of the parties and the personalities involved, that no amount of mediation or intervention will resolve the current conflicts.”

The report recommended abolishing the cemetery commission and putting the cemeteries under the direction of the highway department.

The selectmen decided in August to shift responsibility for care and maintenance of the cemetery to the highway department, but decided not to abolish the cemetery commission, saying it played an historical role, having been established more than century ago.

At Tuesday’s meeting, selectmen outlined an arrangement that turns over the general maintenance of the cemetery and the equipment to the highway department and adds a 10-hour-a-week administrative assistant who would perform the tasks the superintendent has been responsible for. The arrangement did not explicitly discuss continuing the position of cemetery superintendent, but would appear to abolish the job.

The person in the assistant position would take minutes at the commission’s meetings, provide customer service, sell lots, and serve as a liaison between the commissioners and the highway department. The employee would have an office at the town hall. Ms. Morgan did not attend the Nov. 22 meeting.

The selectmen’s plan also states that “all burial plots, including cremation, will be dug by the funeral home’s employee. No Edgartown employee may contract with the funeral home to provide this service.”

The highway department would hire two more laborers, which the selectmen said is “needed regardless of taking over the cemetery.”

If the cemetery commission agrees to move forward with the selectmen’s plan, the changes would be included as budget items at the special town meeting in April 2017, which will be immediately prior to the regular annual town meeting. The cemetery budget would have $1,000 in the expense column for use by the assistant. The budget will have an amount in the salary line to cover the assistant’s salary, and the remaining funds in the cemetery department’s budget would be transferred to the highway department budget.

Cemetery commissioner Liz Villard expressed concern at the meeting about the care required to maintain the cemetery and preserve the integrity of the gravestones.

“What worries me is that you put someone in there that just wants to get the job done,” Ms. Villard told the selectmen. “Every time I go into a graveyard, I see damage.”

Cemetery commission chair Andy Kelly said the highway department “already has a lot on its shoulders.” Selectmen Michael Donaroma reminded him that the plan includes two extra highway department employees to be used “as needed.”

Selectman Margaret Serpa said the plan outlines better use of employees and funds. “We needed to address this,” she said.

Cemetery commissioner Susan Brown indicated that she is worried about maintaining open communication between the highway department and the cemetery commission, and whether or not the new plan meant the current members would continue to stay on the commission. The selectmen said they would remain on the commission as usual until their terms were completed and their reappointments considered.

Mr. Kelly asked when the new arrangement would take effect, and town administrator Pam Dolby explained that if the new budget item was taken up at a special town meeting, it would be effective immediately in April. If it is taken up at the annual town meeting and taxpayers didn’t have a problem with the budget item, it would take effect July 1, the start of the fiscal year. Edgartown’s annual town meeting will be held Tuesday, April 11, 2017, and the special town meeting precedes the annual meeting and is held the same day.

Ms. Villard added that she would like to see the job description of the administrative assistant include research and documentation about the gravestones.

“I’d like to see it in here,” Ms. Villard said. “That was a bone of contention.”

The consultants’ July review mentioned that Ms. Morgan questioned the validity of a 2015 request from Ms. Villard to carry out a historical gravestone project.

Cemetery commission chair Andy Kelly said after the meeting that the commission would review the plan and discuss it at their December meeting.

“This was the first time we’ve seen this,” he said. “We’ll sit down and discuss the pros and cons, and we’ll have to see if the taxpayers move it forward, and if they don’t, we’ll go back to square one.”