Tulare Cemetery hires new district manager

Clara Bernardo hopes to bring ‘heart’ care back to cemetery where her son was buried in 2019

TULARE –  Clara Bernardo quietly sat down at the far end of a folding table in a storage room and waited for Tulare Cemetery District’s July 7 meeting to begin. As the meeting began, trustees overseeing one of the most contentious public boards in the county took their seats a few feet from a fiery public. The chairperson introduced Bernardo as the newly hired district manager before sending the meeting to closed session where it discussed censuring one of its own board members for breaking the law, pending lawsuits with former employees who claim other trustees broke the law and new claims filed against the cemetery for mistakes by former and current employees.

When they returned to open session, the board made several announcements before approving Bernardo’s appointment as the new district manager. They followed it up by arguing whether or not she was hired properly and if they had settled on salary and benefits.

Welcome to working at the Tulare Public Cemetery District.

Through it all, Bernardo wore a reserved countenance compared to her last foray into public life during her campaign for the District 1 seat on the Tulare City Council. Bernardo challenged incumbent Jose Sigala for the seat during the November election, and while her bid was not successful, Bernardo’s passion for Tulare certainly came through the screen during the online forum Sept. 17 hosted by The Sun-Gazette, Tulare County Association of Realtors and Women’s Council of Realtors. 

“Truthfully, some of these people need to sit down and shut up and listen to the citizens,” Bernardo said during the forum.  

That’s exactly what Bernardo said she intends to do for the cemetery district. 

The cemetery district holds a special place in Bernardo’s heart because her son is buried in the North Cemetery. Casey Bernardo, 22, and his cousin, Giovanni Ramirez, 16, were both killed in a car accident in September 2019 near Hanford. Casey was a standout athlete at Tulare Western High School before graduating in 2014. Ramirez was a junior and also played football for the Mustangs.

Bernardo said losing her son was heartbreaking but being able to oversee his final resting place will help bring her some peace. 

“My son brought my heart here,” Bernardo said. “I’m excited about bringing that heart back to this place.”

Bernardo said having someone buried at the cemetery helps her understand and empathize with the grief family members go through when burying a loved one and beyond. She understands the pain of seeing a crack in a headstone, when flowers are removed or when a bench is offset or uneven.

“It may not seem that large of an issue in the scheme of things but to them it’s tragic,” Bernardo said. “The idea of those things has sentimental value to the family and that is an important part of what we do.”

Bernardo replaces former district manager Leonor Castaneda who was fired by the board at its April 7 meeting. Castaneda had served as the office manager since 2017, a time frame marked by mistakes including burying at least two people in the wrong graves. Two others happened that year before Castaneda was hired. The Tulare County Grand Jury released its investigation into the cemetery district last summer reporting antiquated bookkeeping practices had led to inaccurate and lost payroll documents and poor accounting of its endowment care fund, some of which happened under Castaneda.

Other public comments mentioned Castaneda was rude to grieving families over the phone, a stark contrast to the groundskeepers who were polite and respectful when dealing with families in person.

Bernardo said the employees who are still with the district tell a different story than those who have made headlines after being fired. She said the grounds crew, office staff and even the board members put in many hours to ensure the mistakes of the past don’t come back to the haunt the district’s reputation.

“We have great employees,” Bernardo said. “They are hardworking and their heart is in the right place.”

Bernardo has about 30 years of office management experience. For the last six years she was the office manager and safety director for Roche Oil. Prior to that she owned and operated her own daycare for 13 years, managed and did bookkeeping at Martino’s Mini Mart. She is currently attending Western Governors University to obtain her bachelor’s degree in human resources. More importantly, she said she wants to serve her community as a public servant and help people focus on its peaceful, well maintained grounds and not the controversies which have uprooted and split the community.

“I wanted to give back to the community that showed me so much love for me at a time when I needed it,” Bernardo said.

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