A trio of community members filed preliminary paperwork Wednesday afternoon with the Finney County Clerk's Office to start a petition drive to recall five of the six Garden City Community College Board of Trustees members, saying the trustees have failed to serve the college’s students and faculty.
As stated in Kansas Statute 25-4322, a copy of any petition to recall a local official must be submitted to the county’s election officer, along with the names and addresses of the recall committee and sponsors, before the petitions can be circulated. Toni Douglass, Zach Worf and Maxine Atkinson, the recall committee and sponsors, submitted signed and addressed copies of their petitions calling for the recall of Trustees Chairman Steve Martinez, Vice Chair Terri Worf and trustees Merilyn Douglass, Blake Wasinger and Jeff Crist to Finney County Clerk and Election Officer Dori Munyan. The only trustee the committee does not want to recall is Leonard Hitz.
“In our opinion and the opinion of those we have spoken to, Leonard has been the only voice who has actually asked questions about sexual harassment. He’s asked questions about financials … (They) basically were ignored,” Toni Douglass said.
Along with the petitions, Toni Douglass, Zach Worf and Atkinson included a list of future circulators, including themselves, Carol Lee, Barbara Larson, Rick Carroll, Nicole Lopez, Aaron Kucharik and Brenda Reeve. Kucharik, who serves as secretary on the GCCC Endowment Association’s board of directors, was also present at the filing.
The petitions have the potential to be historic. Munyan said she had not been able to find record of a prior GCCC Board of Trustees recall, much less an attempt to recall five at once.
Each trustee’s petition lists the same grounds for recall: failure to meet their duty to act in the best interest of the students, faculty and constituents of the college, placing the college in jeopardy regarding accreditation and federal and state athletic association requirements, and failure to provide a safe learning and living environment at GCCC.
The petitions come amidst a tumultuous time at the college. In April, community members, including Toni Douglass and Kucharik, confronted the board about its quiet response to sexual harassment allegations against former GCCC cheer coach Brice Knapp.
“Brice Knapp is a symptom of Dr. Swender,” Zach Worf said after the filing, referring to GCCC President Herbert Swender. “(Swender) has cultivated an environment that allows and breeds this type of behavior and so much worse. So, the only people above Dr. Swender is the board, and they don’t intend to work on the community and these students’ behalf.”
In May, the GCCC Faculty Senate presented an extensive report of faculty members’ accounts accusing Swender of bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment and retaliation. The report painted a toxic work environment at the college and claimed it may cost the college its accreditation. The report called for the board to terminate Swender.
On Monday, the board announced they had retained Kansas City attorney Greg Goheen to conduct an independent investigation into the claims made in the report.
Also in May, the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference forced the GCCC volleyball program to forfeit its 2017 season wins, relinquish two scholarships for the next two seasons and sit out next season’s postseason after former volleyball player Shaney Tiumalu lived with GCCC Athletic Director John Green for free during the summer of 2017. The KJCCC deemed the living situation was a violation of KJCCC and NJCAA rules.
Toni Douglass and Zach Worf are both related to board members they hope to recall. Toni and Merilyn Douglass are sisters-in-law and Zach and Terri Worf are cousins by marriage. They said they were driven to recall the five trustees because of how they and fellow community members feel about their performance on the board.
“We elected them. The general population here in Finney County elected these people to do the business of the constituency in this county, and the sole focus being ‘What is best for Garden City Community College?’ Not, ‘What is best for Dr. Herbert Swender?’ That’s why. And we don’t feel that that’s what’s happening at this point,” Toni Douglass said.
According to state statute, after the copy of the petition is submitted to the county election officer, the officer must give a copy of the petition to the county or district attorney, who must review and decide whether the petition’s grounds are sufficient. The decision is based on supporting facts and requirements regarding their position and how long the official has been in office.
After Toni Douglass, Zach Worf and Atkinson signed the copies, Munyan said she would take the documents to County Attorney Susan Richmeier’s office and notify her of their arrival that day. As per state statute, Richmeier will have five business days to make her decision.
If Richmeier decides the petitions’ grounds are sufficient, Munyan said the county attorney will then tell the recall committee how many signatures they need for each petition. The number of signatures is decided by taking 40 percent of the total amount of votes submitted for the office in question at the most recent election. In this case, this refers to the 7,815 people who voted for candidates for the Board of Trustees in November 2017. This number is then divided by the number of positions being elected in that cycle. In this case, it’s three: those won by Merilyn Douglass, Wasinger and Hitz.
With these numbers, Munyan confirmed each petition must accrue at least 1,042 signatures each. She said all signatures must be from Finney County residents and registered voters. Those who were not currently registered could register before signing, she said. The petitions must be circulated personally and only by the list of people the recall committee submitted to Munyan.
Toni Douglass, Zach Worf, Atkinson and Kucharik said they were confident they would be able to get enough signatures, and Toni Douglass said they planned on turning in 15 to 20 percent more than they needed.
Toni Douglass said three people had spoken to her personally about holding signing parties. Frustration with the five board members, and the board in general, is widespread and persistent, she said.
“There has been plenty of indications. There have been plenty of notifications from members of the community and likewise, and nothing has been done,” Toni Douglass said.
If Richmeier approves the petitions and if the circulators get enough signatures, it is uncertain exactly how the recalled trustees would be replaced. In the past, vacant positions have been filled midway through terms via appointments. Munyan said she suspected in this case there would be a special election.
Whether that many board members can be recalled at once is another matter. Per state statute 25-4323, the number of recalled local officials on the same governing body cannot be more than a majority minus one. Bryan Caskey, director of elections in Kansas’ Secretary of State office, said in the case of the six-member GCCC Board of Trustees, only three members could be recalled at one time. He said it was up to Richmeier to determine if the rule would invalidate part or all of the recall committee’s petitions.
Richmeier was not available for comment.
Trustees were largely unaware of the recall committee's intentions. Martinez, a board member since 2015, said in a text message that he had heard the community's concerns and took them seriously.
“I was elected to serve on the board of trustees, and I will continue to honor my commitment to the taxpayers and stakeholders of GCCC,” he said in the message.
Merilyn Douglass said she considered GCCC to be “one of the treasures of our community.” She has been a board member for 12 years.
“They’re entitled to their opinion, and I'm entitled to mine,” she said about the recall committee. “And my personal opinion is that I do have the interest of the students, the welfare of the college, the commune of the college… And I will work and continue to do my best ... to keep it one of those treasures.”
Wasinger and Hitz both said the public had a right to make a recall, should they see fit.
Wasinger, who has spent roughly a year and a half on the board, said he was disheartened and didn’t find the recall fair. He said community members he had spoken to expressed satisfaction with the board, particularly with its recent decision to seek a third-party investigation into the Faculty Senate’s report. He said the board had listened to the community’s concerns, and he wished the citizens would give them a chance to follow through.
He said it was sad the whole board had been considered ineffective, particularly veteran members Terri Worf and Merilyn Douglass, whose work and impact he respects.
Hitz, who has been a trustee since November, said he had heard community members were considering such an action, but knew little about it. He said he had never been contacted about it, was never involved and intentionally stayed away from it.
Hitz has said in the past that he believes his tendencies to speak out about or question the college’s actions have caused some trustees to not want him on the board.
“I’m one against five,” Hitz said on Wednesday.
Crist and Terri Worf did not return calls seeking comment.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.