Public meeting to be held Monday, June 25
Monday night’s Augusta City Council meeting turned emotional as residents voiced concerns over the enforcement of cemetery rules that were discussed, reviewed, and published in 2016. Weekend social media conversations indicated clean up efforts following the guidelines had begun in the older part of Elmwood Cemetery. Some residents were upset because they were unaware of the rules and felt notification was in order.
Background on the issue
An ad hoc committee was created in 2016 to specifically review Elmwood Cemetery regulations pertaining to decorations. The committee, comprised of council members, two local funeral home representatives, and three citizens, met five times before submitting a report to the City Council.
The City sent out notices in utility bills, posted signs at Elmwood Cemetery, and shared information on social media reminding the public of existing cemetery regulations.
After years of lax enforcement and a widespread unfamiliarity with rules and regulations at the cemetery, the notification generated a backlash from the community.
The notice had indicated that the regulations would be enforced by removing prohibited items following the Memorial Day holiday.
That did not happen.
There is now a new cemetery sexton, along with new cemetery staff. A sexton wishing to enforce rules and the City’s failure to notify residents that enforcement would be taking place, caused weekend excitement on Facebook and at the cemetery.
Council amended Monday night’s agenda to include discussion time for the issue. Mayor Mike Rawlings allowed people to speak and exceed the alloted five minutes for public comments.
Councilman Tom Leffler shared concerns, “We had five meetings and lots of research was involved. We compared our rules with those of other cities. Everyone came away learning things about cemeteries that we didn’t know...Our big concern is the safety of our workers,” he continued, “My wife and I take care of the cemetery where our son is buried and we found out that lots of things not attached become flying objects. We care about the way the cemetery is maintained. When the city meetings were held, only two people showed up. It was published and signs were posted.”
Business owner and former council member Sue Jones spoke, “I have no problem with the rules. My concern is the lack of communication. It was nearly two years ago when it was made public...It’s embarrassing to see something this personal be put on television again. When changes are made, nothing is said and all of a sudden, boom! You have to communicate with the citizens. That’s your job.”
Resident Michele Davis explained that like Jones, her concern is not necessarily the regulations, but the manner in which enforcement was handled. She also voiced concern about mowers moving too quickly and being reckless.
Others addressing Council shared their personal stories on family members interred at Elmwood and what decorations should be allowed. Complaints ranged from the sudden removal of treasured items to accusations of “hiring the wrong workers who are lazy and incapable of doing anything right.”
Mayor Rawlings reminded everyone that no decisions would be made Monday night, but everyone was welcome to be heard.
“This is a very emotional topic and there is always room for interpretation. Based on the feedback, we have asked staff to stop the implementation until we resolve this...If adjustments need to be made, then Council can do so. We won’t proceed without your direction,” City Manager Shaw advised.
“We do acknowledge a lack of communication - in several ways,” Mayor Rawlings stated.
“We appreciate everyone sharing their concerns. We started this process two to three years ago. It was not our intention to not notify you. We thought the notification had been included with utility bills. It wasn’t and all were caught off guard,” Shaw said.
Councilman Leffler suggested a work session to discuss and review the issue further.
Council members approved holding a workshop open to the public at 6 p.m. on Monday, June 25, at City Hall. Citizens concerned about the cemetery regulations are encouraged to attend.
More from Monday’s City Council meeting in Saturday’s TG edition.