GENESEO — During spring cleanup of Oakwood Cemetery this week in Geneseo, city employees removed numerous items from graves that upset a number of families and drew about 20 negative comments on the city's Facebook page.
One of those who was upset was Vicky Hilligoss, whose grandparents are buried at Oakwood.
“I think it's cruel the way they're doing it,” she said. “We used to put flowers up there and everything — flower pots on shepherd's hooks, every Mother's and Father's Day and every holiday. I can't see it being like this. My daughter was really upset about them taking them out and everything. I don't like it at all.”
On Thursday, Mayor Sean Johnson and City Administrator JoAnn Hollenkamp took responsibility for the removal of the items.
Hollenkamp said the city had one employee who began removing items from graves and pulling them directly to the side of the rows in two or three paths at Oakwood.
“Since then we have put it all back,” she said, adding it may not have been returned perfectly.
She said the rules for decorating graves were not new and had been in place “forever” but were never enforced.
“Most people didn't know anything about them,” she said. “The city is extremely apologetic, and we completely dropped the ball.”
Under the rules for both Oakwood and North cemeteries, only decorations that are on the stone itself or on the base of the tombstone are allowed. Flowers, statues, porcelain butterflies, kaleidoscope-like wind catchers and other items can't be placed in the dirt because of mowing.
Hollenkamp said the city should have been working to communicate the rules as of three months ago. She said a discussion would be held at the April 27 committee of the whole meeting.
“I'm not making any excuses — we are 100% at fault for taking actions before notifying anyone,” she said. “We are going to have a meeting and discuss it, and at that point we will be messaging what's going to be happening.”
The mayor also responded.
“The actions many of you witnessed yesterday both in person and through social media are unacceptable, and on behalf of the city I hear your heartbreak and your passionate outrage,” Johnson said.
“Proper notification was not given (and) as mayor, city administrator and the city council, the buck stops with us,” he stated. “Advertising of the cleanup and the items prohibited should have been in all forms of media well in advance.”
Johnson said the city should have communicated its intentions on social media, on utility bills and in the newspaper.
“None of these communications with our citizens happened,” he said. “Where these breakdowns occurred, I have dealt with those responsible appropriately and swiftly.”
Johnson said he was “inundated” with complaints last summer at how poorly the cemetery was being maintained.
“As a city we are doing the best we can with the resources we have,” he noted.
Geneseo's spending on cemeteries exceeds revenue by $85,000 per year. That money comes from the general fund. The city has $500,000 in certificates of deposit for the cemeteries, but that money can only be spent on infrastructure or equipment, not labor.
According to city officials, one citizen suggested that a “cemetery auxiliary” could be launched to help with general maintenance of the cemetery, and the city has begun to move ahead with the idea.
Johnson said he was committed to making Oakwood Cemetery neat and clean once again.
“I want you to know I care, and places like Oakwood Cemetery carry a passion within me, as I too visit there often.”
Hollenkamp said there was a complete lack of communication with the cleanup, and she is hoping that people will accept the city's apology. She said the city had caused a lot of sorrow and grief.