GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) - A tiny not-for-profit cemetery in Georgetown is double charging for family burial plots relatives reserved years ago, those who hold plots there allege.
The proof they say, is written in old ledgers the former caretaker kept.
But board members at the Georgetown Memorial Cemetery Association which was founded in 1969 aren't willing to show the books. That has prompted a lawsuit to force the board to reveal the books and other documents.
Ruben Vasquez's father bought the family's burial plots 30 years ago and did it with cash and a handshake.
"They were basically not highly educated, but intelligent people who knew that a handshake meant something," Vasquez told KXAN. "(It was based on the) honor system especially in the Latino community. Honor is everything."
But plot owners say generations of honor evaporated in late 2011 when a new board of directors took over after the caretaker's retirement. They said that caretaker, Richard Zavala would record each transaction in a ledger.
They accuse the volunteer board of hiding the old ledgers and charging families for their plots unless they show an original receipt.
That new reality hit the Vasquez family head-on in 2012 when Vasquez's sister passed away and they were ordered to pay up for a new plot - one which they said was already theirs.
"We paid. My brother paid $250," he said. "We were under duress."
That story is just one of dozens from members who agreed to meet with KXAN.
Norma Robles-Adorno is leading the charge, even recreating a map of the 44-year-old cemetery based on information gleaned from plot holders she has spoken with.
She says the board has been silent, not answering several written appeals for access to the old ledgers she is convinced will reveal the truth.
"They're calling our family members liars," she said. "Some of the plots have been resold to other families. So now we have mixtures, it's all mixed up. Nobody knows who owns what now."
Other situations have cropped up, too. Tracy Vidaure buried her aunt's remains in June. She said less than an hour before the ceremony, she was told by the board treasurer there would be a $150 fee she did not know about.
"I sat there and I argued telling her I didn't understand why I had to pay twice if my aunt's already paid."
Vidaure was told the money was for cemetery upkeep. The five-acre property is supposed to be maintained by plot holders. One man told KXAN he paid for his relative's burial by mowing the grass in lieu of the new $250 plot payment.
Those who bought plots here long ago, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s say the former caretaker would allow them to put a concrete ring around the plot they had purchased.
For them, that was more than enough proof that those plots were theirs for good, and forever.
But forever apparently comes with a price. When the new board formed none of the plot owners we spoke to say they had any vote. After frustrated members crashed one meeting to voice their concerns, the board now meets in secret.
KXAN repeatedly reached out to the board president, Llorente Navarrette to respond to specific questions about the whereabouts of the old ledgers, the existence of new bylaws and how the board was elected in late 2011.
Navarrette, a one-time Georgetown city councilman, now a high school criminal justice teacher, sent KXAN an email response saying the elected board held community meetings to establish priorities.
"In late 2011, when informed the cemetery was in danger of being dissolved, abandoned and just dumped to the city government, a group of community leaders and volunteers rose up to the challenge," he wrote in the email.
He also wrote the board "built upon the principles of personal responsibility, volunteerism and raising standards of quality workmanship" and desired to return the cemetery to its original beauty.
The board's vice president, Daniel Vasquez told KXAN the ledger and all other relevant documents will be provided publicly sometime soon. He did not have a date, but said the volunteer board members are working on what he called a ‘little kink' in the rules.
"My understanding was as long as you live in (a family's) house, you get buried. That's all you need," said Daniel Vasquez. "Once you leave the house and got married then only the two people that bought (the plot), their parents are eligible for (burial)."
Vasquez said he thought those rules are in the board's bylaws but admitted he had not seen them. The only bylaws plot holders have seen date to December 2011 that list new grave space prices and other rules including removal of fences and flagpoles near plots.
"For 40 years Mr. Zavala ran this cemetery and the other one without any problems whatsoever, said Ruben Vasquez, who is related to the board vice president. "And this new board can't go one year without causing a lot of strife."
Court papers the plot holders filed in late June ask for a copy of the ledger and all relevant paperwork showing how the board operates. The cemetery board's attorney calls
the members' suit an attempt to take over the governance of the board.
In Texas, many cemeteries are overseen by the state's Department of Banking , Special Audit Division. But some are not listed. Georgetown Memorial Cemetery - an older, not-for-profit cemetery without historical significance was not found on a search of that agency's site nor at the Texas Funeral Service Commission which oversees funeral homes.
It is also not listed as a member of the Texas Cemeteries Association . In such cases, operations can be left to volunteer board members and their bylaws.
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