Ventura County Star DRAFT
Attn: Mary Ann Ratcliffe, Publishing Editor
An open letter to the Ventura City Council
Subject: Cemetery Memorial Park
In response to the recent Survey letter published by the City of Ventura Parks Division seeking community input on the future of Cemetery Memorial Park I would like to offer the following observations, comments, rebuttals and suggestions:
The third paragraph in the letter states "The park constitutes some of the precious few acres of open space available in the Downtown and Midtown neighborhoods. It is unique and is one of the few park/cemeteries of its kind" is certainly not a correct statement as the two cemeteries were never available open spaces for uses other than the cemeteries that they are. Pioneer memorial parks exist all over California however not in great numbers. They were the result of cities or counties using California law to acquire title to abandoned and neglected cemeteries by the founders who no longer existed or were unable to maintain them. In this case, the City of Ventura was the founder and holder of title to the Ventura Protestant Cemetery and apparently acquired title to the St. Marys Catholic Cemetery sometime before the mid 1960s. By their own choice the city failed to properly maintain the two cemeteries until the public complained about the run down condition of the properties. The author of the Survey letter implies that only St. Marys cemetery was dilapidated and un-maintained however the city's own Protestant cemetery was also in a run down and un-maintained condition. The properties were, and still are, cemeteries regardless of the City changing the zoning or use of the property. The city was always able to afford and maintain these cemeteries however chose not to do so. The cemeteries are now a pioneer memorial park as established under the California Health and Safety Code (8825). These pioneer memorial cemeteries were never intended to be used as a public park and recreation area and especially not intended to further neglect the graves of the pioneers of Ventura County. This action, allowed under State Law, by the City to declare by resolution, the abandonment of the cemetery as a place of future interment but shall permit interment therein of any person who is an owner of a plot in the cemetery on the date of the resolution, etc. The intent of the law was never to turn the cemetery into a public recreational area or dog run as been currently suggested, but as a memorial park for the pioneers of the community.
Total abandonment of cemeteries, as exemplified by the City of San Francisco, occurred when it was determined that cemetery land was more valuable to the City as land for public use. Cemeteries were then were completely relocated and all the graves with them. These relocated cemeteries now comprise the city of Colma, Calif. that was essentially developed by the City of San Francisco. Many thousands of graves and their major monuments were relocated at the City’s expense
The forth paragraph states; "Back in 1969, when the area was converted to its dual function, Ventura's citizens and descendents of individuals buried in the cemetery were consulted". This statement is exaggerated and essentially meant to mislead the reader. For the most part the statement is untrue as there were no concerted efforts to contact anyone other than to make the required publication in the local newspaper of the Council's Resolution to "declare the abandonment of the cemeteries as a place of future interment." (8825) (Emphasis added). Little was done to accommodate those who did complain. After 60 days of the first publication of the Resolution, the city was free to remove any "copings, improvements and embellishments that the Council found to be a threat to the health, safety or welfare of the public." (8826) The law did not specify nor was it intended to remove the monuments, headstones and grave markers unless they were a threat to the health and safety and general welfare of the public as determined "by the governing board." After the removal of the improvements that were declared a safety and health hazard, if the city followed the appropriate law, the city, in its discretion, was then required by State Code to, "immediately thereafter, by resolution, to dedicate such abandoned cemeteries (abandoned as a place for future internments) as a pioneer memorial park". (8828) Many family members have since protested to the City that they were never notified and have protested at public meetings that they felt that the cemeteries should be restored. Too late perhaps, but that determination will rest on the conscience of the present City Council and the determination of residents of the community as how important it is to protect the heritage of community and the memory of the founders of City of San Buenaventura and the County of Ventura. The 1960's were a period of growth at any cost, and these cemeteries were victims of that mentality.
The fifth paragraph reports that many people from the surrounding community (the local neighborhood?) cherish the space as a passive park where families may spend time with their children and pets. In a cemetery? "It is the City's perspective that both interests are equally important and that both needs can continue to be accommodated in this important space." This statement may explain the agenda of the City however it is not possible to accommodate these two widely diversified interests ethically or perhaps even lawfully. One does not open up a cemetery to be a playground or park for recreational use, or whatever dual use the City wants to put it to. There is no cemetery, anywhere, which allows a use such as proposed.
"According to written statements from the Catholic Archdiocese, the western 110 x 400 feet does not contain any gravesites." This claim implies that the map drawn some 43 years after the cemetery was opened in 1862 accurately recorded all the burials. The Catholic Church simply did not accurately record all the burials in these very old cemeteries. In many cases no accurate records were ever kept of the gravesites other than the grave marker, which in many cases have simply weathered away, and that too is not uncommon. As a case in point, the City has publicly denied and then had to admit that there are several graves that have been paved over for a parking lot. "Various informational sources indicate that there may possibly be burials in this area. However, this will not be known conclusively until further study is commissioned and completed." A paved parking lot has already been placed over a number of Catholic graves. By accident? Perhaps, but with the long history of the City's desecration of the graves and the destruction of the grave markers, that claim is difficult to accept. It appears that there may be other graves in the area, which tend to refute the reference to the Catholic Diocese statement.
"It is the City's desire to respect and avoid disturbing any gravesites." This is a blatantly untrue statement as the City has already desecrated the graves by destroying the memorials, monuments and headstones and disposing them in landfills. Even the GAR Monument, whose title was transferred to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War by Congress in 1954, was removed from the Soldiers Plot and disposed of without any approval from the legal owners.
The City of San Buenaventura is and has been, since they discontinued maintenance of Veterans graves, in unlawful violation of California Law, specifically the Military And Veterans Code, Sections 920-931; 940-950 and more specifically Sections 960-962. Section 960 specifically states:
"Whenever in any cemetery or place of burial of human remains, which is established or organized under the authority of the board of supervisors of any county or the governing body of any city, there is any known grave of a former soldier, sailor, or marine of the United States who was not dishonorably discharged from the service the officers who manage such cemetery or place of burial shall (emphasis added) keep such grave properly marked and identified, and free from weeds and rubbish, and keep in decent order and repair and free from defacement, injury, and unlawful markings any tomb, monument, gravestone, wall, or other appurtenance to such grave."
Like it or not, this is the Law in California, and it is the City Council's responsibility to abide by that law. There are no less that 48 identified graves of Civil War veterans, many buried alongside their wives and children. Many graves of veterans of other wars also exist here, one a holder of the Congressional Medal of Honor, most unmarked or with unapproved markers.
"The Commission wants to hear from everyone to form a clear understanding of the community's needs and desires for this area." The concerns for the care and maintenance of these old cemeteries are greater than the concerns of the immediate neighborhood or the City itself. To name a few: military veterans and their families, Veterans Organizations, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Sons of the Confederate Veterans, all of their associated Auxiliaries, the Legislature of the State of California, the California Attorney General as California's Chief Law Enforcement Officer, family descendants, wherever they may reside as well as most patriotic citizens everywhere. One can only imagine what the reaction would be from the returning veterans from our recent wars to know that their elected representatives refused to honor their sworn duty to uphold the law, the laws which require the protection of veterans’ graves.
There is no one to speak for the forgotten dead still buried in Cemetery Memorial Park that a City council of forty years ago had so callously neglected and allowed to be used for purposes other than a lawful pioneer memorial park. Now is the time to correct the errors of the past and restore these two old Cemeteries to what they were intended to be, the last resting place for our ancestors, to be honored forever. The cemeteries are closed for future internments, as they should be, the only exception being under conditions of the law cited in Section 8825 of the California Health and Safety Code. It is not appropriate nor does it follow the intent of the governing laws to use these cemeteries as a public park as described in item #1 of the current Cemetery Memorial Park Survey. Item #2 suggests an option to "Commemorate those interred in the cemetery with a memorial, monument or wall", however it is still a legal requirement, at the very least, that military veterans graves be marked with a headstone and maintained in perpetuity. It is unconscionable to use any part of these cemeteries for an off-leash dog area or a parking lot. If, like the City of San Francisco, the City Council feels the use of the land has more important use to it's citizens than maintaining the honored resting place of the founders of the city and county as a pioneer cemetery, then they should remove the dead and their monuments and re-inter them to another cemetery.
There is no question that the current City Council is facing a dilemma regarding the right decision to make however the dilemma is of the City Governments own making from years past. One solution might be to form a public Cemetery District, as a Special District in and for Ventura County, whose Board of Trustees are appointed by the Board of Supervisors. The Cemetery properties would be transferred to the District for the management and restoration and to maintain these historic cemeteries, as a pioneer memorial park that they are. They are a part of Ventura County's heritage. The City Council would then be out of the cemetery business and the cemeteries out of local politics.
The Survey Form itself is a self-serving document that leads one to understand what little interest the City really [has] from public input for any purposes other than what is proposed. The questions only highlight the City's agenda. The use of the "Profile of Survey Taker" is unconscionable as it allows the Parks and Recreation to selective choose who they tally their input from. Obviously unless one is a resident of Ventura or lives in the park's immediate neighborhood others will have a lesser priority or be disregarded entirely. The City Council simply needs to reconsider the ethics of what their predecessors have allowed and to honor the military veterans of Ventura County as required by California law.
The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, a national fraternal organization, is interested in restoring the graves of veterans of the Civil War and support those that are actively working to restore the cemeteries. The members of the SUVCW throughout Southern California have agreed to volunteer our time and services to provide and install approved Govt. Civil War upright marble headstones on all identified Civil War graves at no cost to the City of Ventura providing the City will comply with the Military and Veterans Code of Calif.
Edson T. Strobridge