FARMINGTON — More than 150 plot owners and their families met on Tuesday with Memory Gardens management for a second time over conditions at the cemetery.
The meeting, held outside at the cemetery grounds along East Main Avenue, was organized by Denise Lovato. The plot owner formed a group, called Memory Gardens Protesters, after a meeting on July 2 left her and about 50 others upset over the lack of upkeep at the cemetery. Complaints over dead or missing swatches of lawn, overgrown weeds, prairie dog holes and sinking or leaning headstones topped the group's list of complaints.
Lovato said Tuesday's meeting signaled a change, and while she has seen increased efforts at the cemetery, she remains guardedly optimistic over management's ability or commitment to improve conditions.
"I was glad to see the turnout, but I think all of us were disappointed the owners were not there," Lovato said by phone after the meeting. "They have greened it up, greened up the weeds, if you call that progress. There seems to be more activity, but a lot of the lawns look like burnt-up hay. They have a lot of work to do to get rid of the weeds. But I see that they are trying to make progress."
On behalf of her group, Lovato retained Aztec attorney Ryan Lane, who spoke at the meeting. He has great-grandparents and a grandfather buried at Memory Gardens but is not a property or plot owner himself, which Lane said avoids any conflict of interest.
"The Four Corners is a true community, as today's support shows," Lane said after the meeting in a text message. "We are hopeful that Memory Gardens will continue to work with the community to improve its grounds."
Ernest Martinez, regional manager for Serenity and Company, the Phoenix, Ariz., company that has owned Memory Gardens since 2011, attended the meeting. He repeated his pledge from the initial July 2 meeting to repair and rehabilitate the cemetery but struck a more conciliatory tone than before.
"I think the meeting went well. I truly listened to everybody at our first meeting. Every bit of it is my fault, and I've made the decisions that have resulted in conditions being the way they are," Martinez said by phone Tuesday afternoon. "I hope people understand that we are working on ongoing improvements. We've had some challenges and obstacles that we'll overcome, but it takes time. I think people understand that I am taking full responsibility and am committed to making sure the challenges are fixed."
Martinez said talking with plot owners has been positive and he has learned more about the cemetery's conditions than he was aware of before. Those conditions include a mausoleum with a leaky roof, which Martinez promised to hire a contractor to repair. He said he was also surprised at how many plot owners were hauling their own water in buckets and said he will augment the property's irrigation system to make access to water easier.
"My job is to make sure it gets done, and I provided that promise," he said. "We're going to come up with a master plan to plant rose bushes, improve some facilities to have families a little bit more able to do things they want to do. That so many people are hauling water (to water family plots) dumbfounded me. We have water. That's something we'll address."
He attributed dead grass and high weeds to his firing of a long-time groundskeeper in December and hiring someone who has little familiarity with the cemetery and how to effectively prepare its irrigation system for winter conditions.
"A long-time employee with a lot of expertise and knowledge of the cemetery was let go, and, consequently, we lost all that expertise," Martinez said. "We replaced him with a backhoe operator, not a groundskeeper. When it was time to close up for winter, we didn't close up the sprinklers. We didn't do a lot of the things for winter hibernation we should have. I've had a great education in the last three weeks, that's for sure."
The cemetery's owner, Jerry Guttman, said he never was asked to attend Tuesday's meeting. He added he was sorry for any feelings hurt by the cemetery's lack of upkeep.
"We just care about the families and the community, and that's the bottom line," Guttman said by phone on Tuesday from his office in Phoenix, where Serenity and Company is headquartered. "I'm sorry for the upset, challenges and emotional discomfort we've caused the families. That was never our intent — ever."