State regulators and Metro have agreed to a settlement to end an investigation into alleged violations of Oregon cemetery management rules.
The Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board and Metro agreed on Dec. 4 to a settlement stemming from allegations that Metro illegally re-sold graves, changed its cemetery manager without notifying the state and violated state rules when human bones were found in fill dirt on Metro-owned property in Fairview.
As part of its settlement with the state, Metro agreed to $50,000 in fines, which could be doubled if Metro doesn't comply with the settlement agreement. The regional government also agreed to a two-week suspension of marketing activity and to keep in place many of the cemetery protocols Metro has developed in the past two years.
Between the fines and cost of implementing the changes mandated by the state, the settlement will cost Metro at least $240,000.
Many of those costs have already been incurred in the years since Metro began addressing the troubling revelations about re-sold graves, poor record keeping and other issues. The cemetery program's budget has increased from $500,000 to more than $700,000 as Metro has tried to correct its issues.
Paul Slyman, the director of Metro department that oversees the cemeteries, said his department is making improvements to the cemetery program.
"While I don't discredit the mortuary board's investigation and good work, we were going to improve the program independent of that," he said. "I understand they have a role to play to make sure we do that, and that's what the consent order and settlement agreement do."
Under state law, the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board must investigate every complaint from the roughly 2,400 operations it oversees. The board gets about 120 complaints a year and finds violations in less than 5 percent of those, according to state reports.
Michelle Gaines, the board's executive director, said confidentiality rules barred her from discussing the investigation into Metro's cemeteries. Information such as who filed a complaint, the duration of the investigation or the subjects investigated by the board are covered by the confidentiality rules.
Slyman said Metro did not see the complaint, but said the board can investigate an entire cemetery operation once a complaint is raised on any subject.
Problems at Metro's cemeteries were brought to the forefront in 2011, when Ron Overlie, a former employee of the contractor responsible for excavating graves at the cemeteries, posted a YouTube video showing bones in a dirt pile that he said was on NE 223rd Avenue near Blue Lake in Fairview.
Metro has maintained that the bones did not come from an occupied grave. The settlement agreement with the state said the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office determined that bone fragments found at the site, which is on Metro-owned property but not in Blue Lake Regional Park, were from at least two people, and that Metro's conduct was in violation of state rules. The settlement did not address how the bones got there or whether they came from a Metro-owned cemetery.
As part of the agreement, Metro will spend at least $50,000 stabilizing the 223rd Avenue site, including grading, landscaping and permanently securing the area.
In the settlement, Metro agreed that it had re-sold at least 600 graves "without following proper legal process, then sold interment rights to modern purchasers." That was a violation of state law, the settlement said.
In the agreement, Metro said it has spent at least $140,000 to try to resolve the interment rights for graves it believes were abandoned, an effort that most recently led to the publication of 1,000 names of people believed to own about 2,500 abandoned graves. Many of those were purchased in bulk in the late 19th century.
"Everything we've changed, we changed before the investigation was done," Slyman said. "It just so happens we changed all the right things, and we're still changing them. We're still going through our records, we're still looking at old books, ledgers from over 100 years ago. We're trying to take the most conservative approach to know what might be where."
About 100 people have contacted Metro about the search for owners of graves or their descendants. About 25 of those have filed claims for graves that were believed to be abandoned, a process that will continue through February.
It was unclear Tuesday how Metro's penalties compares to other fines issued by the cemetery board. Gaines wouldn't comment on how often the board has handed out fines in excess of $50,000.
She said the 11-member board, which includes industry and public representatives, can only issue fines up to $1,000 per violation or revocation or suspension of a license to operate.
"The board doesn't have the authority to direct or compel any other kind of action," Gaines said. "The board would pursue a settlement agreement if it felt it was in the best interest of the general public, the consumers or the harmed parties."
Metro Councilor Sam Chase said Tuesday that despite the settlement, he feels the program is on the right track. The problems addressed in the settlement have resulted in more awareness of the cemeteries and the challenges of managing them, a change in the business model and increased options for people interested in being memorialized at a regionally-owned cemetery.
"They've done a really good job of addressing these issues," Chase said. "I'm really glad they've come to an agreement. Now that this has been resolved, we can know we've done the right thing for families who want to honor their loved ones, and we can be able to move on."
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Note: An earlier version misidentified the location that human bones were found in Fairview. The bones were found on a Metro-owned site near NE 223rd Avenue. This version has been corrected.
(Sept. 12, 2013)
(March 30, 2012)