CemPark This grave marker for James Sumner, who died in 1912, is one of the few markers left after city officials removed headstones and grave markers from Cemetery Park in 1963.

Future of Ventura's Cemetery Park in limbo

City officials opt for “pioneer memorial park” designation; activists seek full restoration

By Justin Formanek 01/03/2013

The Ventura City Council unanimously approved on, Dec. 17, a resolution to designate Cemetery Memorial Park as a “pioneer memorial park.”

Before the floor opened to comments from council members, City Attorney Ariel Calonne explained what, exactly, the designation meant.

“The name ‘pioneer memorial park’ hearkens back to the days when California’s pioneers were establishing these cemeteries,” said Calonne. “[It] is a reference to the heritage of the community.”

Councilwoman Christy Weir’s description was more succinct.

“It is a park, but it’s also a memorial,” she said. “And it’s sort of the best combination of both.”

The council then voted and, just like that, the resolution passed, without public comment or any inkling of the controversy regarding what Mayor Mike Tracy called a “contentious issue.”

Steve Schleder, an activist with the Restore St. Mary’s Cemetery Foundation, believes that a last-minute addition to the agenda was to blame for the remarkable lack of public opinion. Members of the foundation and descendants of those interred within the park are usually the ones doing the contending.

“It was a big secret that no one knew about,” Schleder said. “They did that on purpose.”

The resolution officially abandons Cemetery Memorial Park as a place of future interment and confirms the city manager’s authority to implement the park’s improvements project, which is currently under way. It also quietly put to ground past administrative oversights.

“We roll back the clock,” said Calonne, “to try and validate some of the actions the city took then.”

The state legislature adopted the pioneer memorial park law in 1957, which allows a city to dedicate an abandoned cemetery as a pioneer memorial park and authorizes the removal of copings, improvements and embellishments, which are considered to be a threat to the health or welfare of the public. With Cemetery Memorial Park, Ventura did the latter without ever undertaking the process of the former.

A 2005 Ventura grand jury report states that a cemetery improvement plan was adopted by the City Council in 1963 and called for, not just the removal of all the existing headstones, but, the installation of walkways, fountains, individual brass markers and memorials that carry the names of all those interred.

The headstones were removed and most were destroyed, discarded or repurposed as landfill for Olivas Links Golf Course. But, for 42 years, the rest of the improvements have yet to be made.

How the original improvement plan came to be necessary is outlined in a list of investigative findings that the grand jury deemed “disturbing historical information about the cemetery and actions taken by Ventura officials in the past.”

After passing a 1944 ordinance that prohibited burials within city limits, the “city allowed the cemetery to deteriorate without taking appropriate remedial action” other than installing hedges along the perimeter and performing a yearly weeding. The inevitable dilapidation of the cemetery was then used “to justify a plan to convert the site to a dual-function cemetery and park.”

A plan that, as the grand jury report bluntly states, the city “failed to perform fully.”

Through the recent dedication of Cemetery Memorial Park as a pioneer memorial park, today’s City Council has effectively sanctioned the actions (and inactions) of its forebears.

Schleder, however, maintains that the dedication does little else.

“It hasn’t changed anything; it’s still a cemetery,” he said. “That can’t be changed until you take the people out, until you exhume the bodies. Until then, you can designate it as anything you want but it’s invalid.”

Before it becomes official, the resolution requires publication of notice for four consecutive weeks. This would allow time for public approval and the arrangement of any potential protests.

“If any protests do come up,” said Calonne, “I may bring it back to City Council, depending on the nature of them.”

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