December 17, 2014

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No charges to be filed against cemetery

LORAIN — Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will said no charges are being leveled against Ridge Hill Memorial Park Cemetery’s Board of Trustees, which the Ohio Department of Commerce found in violation of the board’s bylaws.

Matt Mullins, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Commerce, said the Ohio Cemetery Dispute Resolution Commission’s findings that board members had violated its bylaws were forwarded to the Lorain County prosecutor for review.

The complaint was filed by cemetery association member Harry Williamson Jr., who took issue with three board members — John Dovin, William Hempel and David Dicken — who also are funeral directors. The cemetery’s bylaws prohibit board membership by people who have a financial interest or a competing enterprise or business in selling its product primarily to cemetery associations.

Williamson contends that the board’s choice not to sell burial vaults at the cemetery was made because the sales would take business away from the funeral directors. But board members say that there were liabilities to selling the vaults that led to its decision.

Will said although the board may have violated Ohio Revised Code regarding a violation of the bylaws, pursuing a charge against board members would amount only to a $5 to $50 fine.

“The only applicable statute we could find that applied was not a criminal charge, only a misdemeanor,” he said.
Will said that he advised Williamson that he could pursue a civil lawsuit or make a motion to change the bylaws. Williamson said he is not looking for money, but he will continue to pursue action against the board.

“It’s not really a monetary issue, it’s an ethical issue,” he said.

Williamson spoke at the board’s annual meeting Wednesday, along with John Penton, who criticized the board’s alleged lack of transparency.

Penton, a well-known former motorcycle maker and off-road racer, has long had an issue with the cemetery board. At the meeting, he said he objected to the board changing its agenda at the start of the meeting to hold the election of board members prior to the reading of minutes, rather than after.

“I object to this whole thing,” Penton said at the start of the meeting. “I’m right here, and I’m a member of this longer than you will ever live!”

Penton ran for a spot on the board, along with Williamson, but board member Beverly Corts and Martin Conry were
re-elected. Their terms had expired, necessitating the election. Dovin and Hempel remain on the board, and Dicken has since resigned and was replaced by another funeral director, Mark Reichlin.

Rob White, president of Ridge Hill Memorial Park, led the majority of the meeting, but he did not vote, as he is not a board member. He responded to questions from Williamson, who asked whether employees of Ridge Hill were informed that they could vote during the election.

White said employees were all notified, but many weren’t able to attend as they were working at funerals during the day. But employee Marge Burnsworth, a relative of Williamson, said she had not been notified about the election by White, but she did vote anyway.

White also addressed the Ohio Department of Commerce’s ruling on an alleged violation of bylaws, saying he saw no issue with three of the board members who were employed as funeral directors.

“I do not find that we are in violation of the bylaws at all,” he said. “There was no fine. There was no official record of that.”

In a response to the Ohio Department of Commerce, board member Martin Conry, who also serves as the board’s attorney, wrote that the cemetery ceased selling burial vaults in the 1950s, and the decision not to sell them had nothing to do with a competing interest.

“We have looked into the vault issue. There are many factors which must be considered, including storage, employee training, insurance costs, equipment needed, financing, regulation compliance, zoning, loss of goodwill and other factors,” he wrote. “There are reasons Ridge Hill Memorial Park has not sold vaults in more than 50 years. Very few independent, nonprofit single cemeteries sell vaults.”

The Ridge Hill Memorial Park Cemetery’s Board of Trustees meets monthly, but those meetings aren’t open to the public. Williamson, who said he believed the meetings should be open to the public, said he has asked for copies of monthly minutes and financial reports, but he hasn’t received them.

Legal experts, including an expert on public records, said because the board is not a public entity, it doesn’t necessarily have to provide the information.

“A nonprofit organization isn’t necessarily a public organization,” said public meeting expert Tim Smith. “They can pretty much do what they want.”

Mullins said although Ridge Hill is bound by Ohio law, the board can always change its bylaws.

“We don’t have authority over the bylaws or whether they are changed in the future,” he said.

Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or cmiller@chroniclet.com.