North Whidbey cemetery district dispute erupts
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
March 21, 2012 · Updated 2:10 PM
Two commissioners for the Island County Cemetery District 1 held a special meeting Monday night to deal with the resignation of the third commissioner and instead faced an uprising over their decision to suspend three employees without pay.
The commissioners aren’t saying exactly why cemetery supervisor Michael Dougliss, secretary and treasurer Joan Dougliss and groundskeeper David Watson were suspended, but it came the day after an alleged physical altercation between Michael Dougliss and the commissioner who resigned.
More than 20 concerned citizens crowded into the little office at Maple Leaf Cemetery, just north of Oak Harbor, for the meeting called by the commissioners. Many of the people expressed anger and frustration about the suspension of the employees — who are members of the same family — and the lack of information about the reason behind the suspensions.
Gary Wallin, owner of funeral home next to the cemetery, spoke in support of Dougliss and questioned why the commissioners weren’t allowing public comment at the meeting, which they eventually did. He accused them of “impugning the integrity” of the employees.
Cemetery Commissioner Ann Abrahamse stood up to the angry crowd. She and her husband, who was also attended, reminded everyone that the commissioners are essentially unpaid volunteers just trying to look after a public cemetery. She claimed that the employees haven’t been truthful.
“They are suspended without pay because they brought a situation on themselves that has to be investigated,” she said.
“We have an incident here where boundaries were crossed. Serious boundaries were crossed,” she said later, adding that the commissioners are going to review how the cemetery is being run.
Abrahamse and Commissioner Bob Little said there’s going to be an investigation, but wouldn’t say who’s going to do the investigation or what will be investigated. They explained that they can’t legally go into details about personnel issues in public, even though the suspended employees were present and wanted to have the issues aired.
“That’s the trap they are setting for me and Bob so they can go after the cemetery,” Abrahamse said.
Dougliss said he and his family are in the dark about the reason for the suspension, but he guessed it was retaliation for calling the cops on a commissioner last week. Also, he feels the employees are being targeted because they are all family members. Dougliss has run the cemetery since 1997 and was a cemetery commissioner before that. His wife has worked there since 1989. Watson, his son-in-law, has been a groundskeeper for three years.
Dougliss and Watson explained that the incident at the center of the controversy occurred last Wednesday afternoon. Dougliss said longtime Cemetery Commissioner Jim Flowers was at the cemetery and started “nitpicking” over a few minor issues, including the purchase of an $89 software program they claim he had authorized. Angry words were exchanged and Flowers allegedly balled up a piece of paper, put it inside Dougliss’ jacket and pushed him, according to the account told by Dougliss and Watson.
At his wife’s urging, Dougliss reported the incident to law enforcement.
Deputy Lane Campbell investigated the complaint, but didn’t cite anyone involved. He said he was told that the argument between the two men was about employees allegedly overspending the budget. He said Flowers denied pushing Dougliss. He said he spoke with Abrahamse on the phone and she claimed similar allegations had been made in the past. Campbell felt the issue was resolved, especially with Flowers resigning.
“The reality of the situation is that we have bigger fish to fry,” Campbell explained. “We’re got major crimes occurring all the time and if we can resolve the smaller issues on an adult level, that’s what we try to do.”
Campbell said Abrahamse called the sheriff’s office and requested a deputy to attend the Monday night meeting, but no deputies were available. He said she didn’t return his call prior to the meeting.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Flowers said he wouldn’t comment about the allegations. He said his views about the cemetery district are a matter of public record.
“The commissioners are elected by the taxpayers and they have a difficult job to do,” he said.
In his letter of resignation, Flowers wrote that he and the employees have different visions for the future of the cemetery and that an “impossible relationship has developed between us.”
Dougliss said he didn’t want to press charges against Flowers, but he just wanted an official record of what occurred. But he said he was shocked when Abrahamse and Little appeared the next day and told them all to hand over their keys.
Another wrinkle in the story is that Commissioner Little was previously an employee at the cemetery district. Dougliss claimed he fired Little for insubordination and for acting inappropriately toward certain visitors. Little defeated longtime cemetery commissioner Dur Roberson in the last election. Dougliss feels it is a conflict of interest for Little to be involved in the decision to suspend him or any disciplinary investigation.
During the meeting Monday, Abrahamse accused the employees of refusing to hand over a digital camera, the dump card or the combination to the safe. Watson told her during the meeting where the combination was written and Dougliss said he simply forgot the card. Afterward, Joan Dougliss said she had no idea where the camera could be and that the employees always used her personal camera at the cemetery.
After the meeting, most of the crowd congregated next door at the Wallin Funeral Home to discuss the situation and support Dougliss and his family. Coupeville resident Dale Sherman spoke in support of Dougliss and said it wasn’t unusual for a number of family members to be involved in maintaining a cemetery. He noted that generations of his own family has long been involved in Sunnyside Cemetery in Coupeville.
“Mike is one of the most honest people I’ve met in my entire life,” he said.
Wallin said he was puzzled by the turn of events. He said he dealt with the cemetery for decades and found that Dougliss brought a professionalism to the operation.
According to Dougliss, the cemetery district has an annual budget of about $160,000 a year and only around $25,000 comes from property taxes.
Island County Auditor Sheilah Crider said Tuesday that she was concerned about claims she was told Abrahamse made during the meeting about receiving legal information from the auditor’s office. Crider said the only conversation anyone in her office had with a cemetery commissioner was about who could pick up paperwork regarding vouchers.
“There is some fabrication going on,” Crider said. “I’m concerned. I’m extremely concerned.”
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at email@example.com or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.