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North Whidbey cemetery employees fired, but may return
The elected commissioners who run Maple Leaf Cemetery in Oak Harbor fired their three employees Wednesday, but at least one of the commissioners hopes to hire two of them back as contractors.
The two remaining commissioners of Island County Cemetery District 1 held another contentious meeting, with their attorney by their side, Wednesday afternoon at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Oak Harbor.
Controversy arose last month after longtime commissioner Jim Flowers quit following an altercation with Michael Dougliss, the cemetery supervisor. The two remaining commissioners placed the three employees — who all happen to be related — on unpaid suspension.
Wednesday, commissioners Ann Abrahamse and Bob Little voted to terminate the employee and instead contract with workers to run the cemetery.
“We’re restructuring the cemetery,” Abrahamse said, explaining that contracting the work out will make the duties and responsibilities clearer.
Little estimated that it would save the public cemetery district about $20,000 a year to go with contractors.
Yet many in the small audience were upset with the decision and let the commissioners know it. Gary Wallin, owner of Wallin Funeral Home, suggested that Little had a vendetta against the employees since Dougliss had fired him from a groundskeeping job before he became commissioner. Audience members became especially angry when the commissioners cut off public comments, prompting the attorney, Rod Kaseguma of Bellevue, to jump into the fray.
“I appreciate the animosity that some of you have toward this current board,” he said, but added they are legally within their rights to limit or even bar public comments.
Dougliss had been supervisor of the cemetery since 1997 and his wife, Joan, had worked as the secretary and treasurer for 23 years. The couple’s son-in-law, David Watson, was the groundskeeper for two years. Dougliss worked full time at $16.80 an hour, Watson worked full time at $16.40 an hour and Joan worked five hours a week at $22 an hour, according to Abrahamse.
The commissioners had planned to orchestrate an investigation into perceived problems at the cemetery, but Abrahamse said they gave up on the idea after the Douglisses hired an attorney and sent the commissioners a letter saying they can’t talk to them.
The commissioners and members of the community have publicly alleged problems with the way the staff members ran the cemetery. They were accused of purchasing small items without permission, inappropriately requiring grieving families to buy headstones through the cemetery’s provider, handling a flag inappropriately, removing flowers and statutes from graves and doing a poor job of groundskeeping.
Wednesday, Abrahamse complained that the family still hasn’t provided the password for the cemetery’s website, www.mapleleafcemetery.com. She said Dougliss’ other son-in-law had been hired to create the website before she came on board. She found an email stating that the man had quit last January, but vouchers show that the district was paying many hundreds of dollars for the website throughout last year.
Nevertheless, Abrahamse said Thursday that she’s literally sick about all the animosity and hopes to “build a bridge” to unite everyone once again. She’s worried about the couple, who are both in their 60s, being out of work. She proposes to hire Dougliss as the contractor for maintenance of the cemetery and his wife as a contracted bookkeeper. Watson, however, will have to find another job.
“Mike and I, we go way back,” she said. “He’s like me, all he cares about is the cemetery.”
Abrahamse said she loves and appreciates Mike Dougliss for all he’s done for the cemetery. She and Dougliss worked together to created “Babyland” years ago. They labored and raised money to identify and place headstones on 190 unmarked baby graves, she said. She added that Dougliss has a great knowledge about the cemetery and the island’s pioneers and shares the stories with visitors. Someone hired to just mow lawns, she said, couldn’t be able to provide that kind of institutional knowledge to families.
Abrahamse said she hopes to meet with Dougliss, against the advice of lawyers, to work things out.
“I don’t want to be separated by lawyers anymore,” she said.
Abrahamse said she doesn’t know whether Little will go along with her proposal — they aren’t allowed to communicate about district business outside of meetings — but she’s hopeful. She said, in her experience, he hasn’t acted as if he has a vendetta, but has only wanted what’s best for the cemetery. He said at the meeting Wednesday that the former employees are more than welcome to apply for the jobs as contracted employees.
The commissioners also said they are accepting resumes or applications from anyone interested in filling the vacant position on the board.