A trio of local residents, including American Warrior CEO Cecil O’Brate, on Wednesday submitted paperwork with the Finney County Clerk's Office in an attempt to start a petition to recall Leonard Hitz from the Garden City Community College Board of Trustees Wednesday on the grounds that he sexually harassed female students at the college’s May graduation.

The petition’s recall committee, comprised of O’Brate, American Warrior Production Superintendent Kevin Wiles and former GCCC Public Relations and Marketing Director Kristi Tempel, submitted paperwork saying Hitz had “engaged in misconduct in office” by allegedly inappropriately touching female students without their consent as he greeted them at the graduation ceremony.

O’Brate, Wiles, Tempel and Myrna Powell were listed as petition circulators. Tempel resigned from her position at GCCC last month and is currently a part-time consultant at the college. Powell is the wife of former State Sen. Larry Powell.

Finney County Clerk and Election Officer Dori Munyan said the petition had been submitted to Finney County Attorney Susan Richmeier for review.

The petition comes four weeks after someone anonymously emailed a video to trustees and local news outlets, which appeared to splice together clips from the college’s livestream of graduation and showed Hitz, on stage at the end of a line of trustees, hugging, patting on the back or placing an arm around the shoulders of female students who had just received their diplomas. The video calls Hitz’s actions inappropriate and claims he is leaning in to kiss some students.

Hitz has denied the allegations and characterization of his actions. He said he did not kiss any student, but did lean in to ask the recent graduates about their future plans. At the time, he said he saw the video as an unethical means to remove him from the Board of Trustees.

“There are board members that do not want me there. I think there are some (people) … that want to use it against me,” Hitz said about the video in May. “It’s a lie. Anybody that knows me knows that’s not me.”

The video was taken down within a day of the initial email due to copyright infringement from GC3 media.

Though the petitions submitted to the clerk’s office only mention grounds of misconduct and sexual harassment, O’Brate said there were other reasons to recall Hitz.

In a statement provided by American Warrior’s attorney Jake Price, O’Brate said he, Tempel and Wiles were responding as “concerned citizens” to protect the “integrity and reputation” of GCCC. O’Brate said Hitz has expressed confusion with financial information but not reached out to the college’s accounting staff and accused him of displaying a lack of respect for the college’s processes, Board of Trustees and administration, including GCCC President Herbert Swender.

“The video of Mr. Hitz’s unprofessional acts at graduation only highlight that he doesn’t meet the standard of conduct expected of a member of the Board of Trustees…” O’Brate said in the statement. “The recent efforts to disparage GCCC, President Swender and other members of the GCCC staff and undermine the accreditation process with the Higher Learning Commission coincide with Hitz’s joining of the Board of Trustees. We do not feel this is a coincidence.”

In a later statement, O’Brate, who attended the GCCC graduation, said he could see Hitz’s actions from his seat and found them inappropriate and that several people complained to him about the behavior afterwards. He said he had not seen any videos of the ceremony.

In a separate statement, O’Brate explained why the sexual harassment allegations are the ones that appear on the petition.

“There are plenty of reasons Hitz is a terrible trustee but his antics at graduation seem to fit the requirements of the recall statute best,” O’Brate said in a follow-up statement.

Tempel also provided a statement, citing her positive experiences as an employee of the college and the growth and developments she’s seen there over the years. She said she disagreed with “how vicious the attacks have been” against the college’s administrators and trustees and said she believed all GCCC employees and board members could work together to solve recent issues.

“The college is a great value to this community and I think it is imperative to have board members that are working to build it up, rather than tear it down … I signed the petition to show support for the administration and board members that I worked with and witnessed doing good things for the college. I have only seen strife and personal agendas being put forth since Mr. Hitz joined the board,” Tempel said in her statement.

Tempel’s statement is largely about her concerns with the college, only mentions Hitz by name once and makes no reference to the sexual harassment allegations that are listed as grounds for the petition.

In a statement Wednesday, Hitz again denied the allegations of sexual harassment and said he assumed the petition was a form of retaliation for questioning board and college practices. Regarding the video, he said it is “no secret that certain people do not want me” on the board and he asked whether the recall could be a “smoke screen” to distract attention from a third-party investigation being done into allegations the Faculty Senate has brought against Swender.

“It is a sad state when people who have money and political clout want to control events they may not agree with. It is a cowardly act to fabricate lies and untruths to discredit or assassinate one's character to gain power over their freedom of speech … Sad day when those who have the money think their opinion should override the opinion of other people. Would even be a travesty of justice if the County Attorney approves this filing based on (hearsay). The allegations listed are completely false,” Hitz said in a statement.

Board of Trustees Chair Steve Martinez said he thought the public should give the board the opportunity to do its job, specifically regarding the board’s recent decision to retain Kansas City lawyer Greg Goheen to investigate claims made in a Faculty Senate report. The report accuses Swender of bullying, intimidating, sexually harassing and retaliating against employees and ultimately calls for his termination. Changing board members’ status in the middle of the investigation would not help present circumstances, Martinez said.

Martinez, who also greeted graduates on stage at the May ceremony, said he had seen the video accusing Hitz and did not think the trustee’s actions constituted sexual harassment. He said it would be a different circumstance should the female students in question come forward and complain, but at this moment, he sees no problem.

“In my opinion, there was no substance to do that. I didn’t see anything,” Martinez said about the petition and its claims.

Trustee Blake Wasinger declined to comment on the petitions or the allegations against Hitz, but said he hopes the public can respect what the board is trying to do. Trustee Merilyn Douglass said she had seen the video and did not find the allegations or the grounds listed on the petition to be fair.

“I am sorry that that’s happening,” she said about the petition to recall Hitz. “I think that’s not the right tactic for anybody.”

The petition also comes in wake of another attempted community recall of GCCC trustees. Last week, community members Toni Douglass, Zach Worf and Maxine Atkinson submitted paperwork to start a petition drive to recall the other five members of the board: Martinez, Vice Chair Terri Worf, and members Wasinger, Merilyn Douglass and Jeff Crist.

Richmeier denied the petitions on Tuesday, saying state statute only allows one less than the majority of officials from the same governing body to be recalled at the same time, which would be three in the case of the Board of Trustees.

Toni Douglass said Tuesday that she and the rest of the recall committee plan to resubmit the petitions, though would first meet to decide which trustees they wanted to recall.

Per state statute, Richmeier has five business days to decide whether the grounds to recall Hitz are sufficient. If the petitions are approved, Munyan said, based on election results and state formulas, O’Brate, Tempel, Wiles and Powell would need to accrue at least 1,042 signatures to recall Hitz. All signatures must be from registered voters in Finney County.

Terri Worf, Crist and Wiles did not respond to calls requesting comment. Richmeier declined to comment about the latest petition effort on Wednesday.

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.