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Court order halts operations at Rural Home cemetery

March 4, 2014

Despite a state-approved transfer of Rural Home Cemetery to the Village of Big Bend in November 2013, the discussion isn't over on the future of the property; in fact, it may be just beginning.

Thirty-four people filed a petition in Waukesha County Court on Feb. 24 seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent the Village of Big Bend from taking over the property. The temporary order, which was approved, put the cemetery in legal limbo and is halting burials at the cemetery until a formal injunction hearing, which is scheduled for March 12.

The nearly three dozen plaintiffs from Big Bend, Waukesha, Muskego and Mukwonago named defendants Fredrick Latzke, Catherine Alba and Richard Riesch of the former Rural Home Cemetery Association Board, and each Village of Big Bend trustee as well as Big Bend Village Clerk Barbara Woppert in the suit, which asks that control over the cemetery be turned over directly to the plot owners.

The complaint

Rural Home Cemetery, which has more than 1,000 graves, is on Highway L in the Town of Vernon. The complaint states that Vernon resident Bill Craig first learned of the potential transfer after John Maney, another resident, saw a meeting notice on a bulletin board regarding an upcoming Big Bend Department of Public Works meeting at which maintenance of the cemetery was to be discussed in October 2013.

Craig, in his role as a Vernon town supervisor, claimed that he had not heard of the transfer and at the meeting was informed that Big Bend was "taking over the cemetery" and that "the paperwork is in Madison and when we get it back it will be a done deal," according to the complaint.

According to the complaint, Craig, Maney and Vernon resident Tom Bird each individually prepared and filed complaints with the Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS), alleging mismanagement of Rural Home Cemetery and lack of notice to plot holders of the transfer of the cemetery to the Village of Big Bend.

On Nov. 19, Craig and Bird made statements and inquiries about the legality of the conveyance of the Rural Home Cemetery to the State Cemetery Board, the complaint said. The board ultimately approved the transfer.

The complaint alleges that upon filing an open records request with the village in January, Craig received only partial records. The complaint also alleges the group was unable to obtain bylaws for the cemetery from Latzke, former president of the cemetery association.

Additional items listed in the complaint include concerns that Big Bend will use excess land attached to the cemetery for a future wastewater treatment project, the fact that the village would have the ability to special assess plots or dissipate funds intended for the cemetery into a general fund, and that proper notification did not take place.

The complaint states that the petitioners believe the transfer is illegal, null and void based on a violation of the cemetery's original bylaws. The complaint also states that at least nine plotholders are willing to serve as trustees or officers should the Rural Home Cemetery Association regain control of the cemetery.

Reaction

Craig discussed the decision to file for a temporary retraining order as a reaction to what he feels was a vote at a meeting that the public was not properly notified of.

"The first petition I went to get signed had 75 signatures, and not one person knew about the April (association) meeting," Craig said in an interview with the Chief. "We asked Big Bend, we open record requested the clerk here, and nobody could give us a copy of these minutes.

Lo and behold, when we were here today by court order, we were allowed to come in here and go through records, and there are minutes from the April meeting at which time the decision was made by the association, Rural Home, and six people who were at the meeting, plus the officers," Craig said.

"In open records, there's 1,032 graves showing, and you have six people who are neatly fit together in the Village of Big Bend make a decision for a thousand grave owners? This is insane," he added.

The meeting, which was held at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 27, had two legal notices published in the Mukwonago Chief, but Craig alleges they were posted nowhere else. Craig also alleged that the lack of notification extended to the town and was completely intentional.

"The correspondence between Latzke, the state and the Village of Big Bend; the Town of Vernon was never cc'd on anything. We were meant to be kept out of the loop because they knew there would be objections," Craig said.

Still, Craig said that the most important outcome is that plot owners who have an investment in the future of the cemetery are able to have a voice in the final decision.

"Let's say this whole association got together, 500-600 people, if they say they want Big Bend to handle it, I have no problem, but I want to have a democratic vote. I don't want manipulation," Craig said.

Big Bend Village President James Soneberg, a defendant in the case, said that the village attorney is recommending that those involved not comment on the issue, but he confirmed that the temporary restraining order halts all cemetery business.

"We have a concern in regards to the restraining order because we have had requests for burials. We are unable to honor those burial requests. Anyone between now and March 12 who needs to have a burial, we can't do it," Soneberg said.

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