Initial paperwork for petitions to recall three members of the Garden City Community College Board of Trustees were denied Wednesday, following a back and forth between groups criticizing and defending the college.
Petition paperwork seeking the ouster of Trustees Vice Chair Terri Worf and Trustee Jeff Crist, as well as another petition filing seeking the ouster of Trustee Leonard Hitz, were submitted by two opposing groups to the Finney County Clerk’s Office on June 13, giving Finney County Attorney Susan Richmeier five business days to decide whether the petitions’ grounds were sufficient enough to begin gathering signatures. Richmeier announced Monday that she was deferring the decisions to Hamilton County Attorney Rob Gale, citing a potential conflict of interest due to the opposing recall committees and her and her coworkers’ relationships in the community.
In letters to the respective recall committees, Gale said all three submissions had met six of the seven factors deciding sufficiency, which deal with the official’s position and term length, prior recall elections and filing requirements and format. Where the three submissions falter is the requirement dictating that facts support the stated grounds for recall.
Two of the petition filings, submitted by community members Toni Douglass, Zach Worf and Maxine Atkinson, looked to recall Terri Worf and Crist. The group cited failure to act in the best interest of students, faculty and college constituents, which put GCCC’s accreditation and athletic programs in jeopardy and failed to provide a safe learning and living environment on campus as the grounds for the petitions.
The third petition filing, made by American Warrior CEO Cecil O’Brate, former GCCC Public Relations and Marketing Director Kristi Tempel and American Warrior Production Superintendent Kevin Wiles, called for the recall of Hitz due to allegations that he sexually harassed female students at the college’s May graduation ceremony.
As Gale explained in the letters, it is not the county attorney’s job to determine the truth of the grounds, such as the effect of Crist and Terri Worf’s job performance or Hitz’s alleged sexual harassment. The county attorney must decide whether the stated grounds are sufficient according to state statute, and the electors or signers are given the power to determine the claims’ veracity for themselves.
Gale said he reached out to two of the authors of the bar association journal and an attorney to which he refers frequently on employee claims and sexual harassment issues to round out his decisions.
In Kansas, there are three grounds for recall of a public official: conviction of a felony, misconduct in office and failure to perform duties prescribed by law. In the letters Gale wrote regarding Crist and Terri Worf, he said the submissions were denied partially because the recall committee did not clarify which of the three grounds they were pursuing.
The grounds, which were identical for Terri Worf and Crist, also were not specific enough, Gale said, referencing vague issues but not explaining how they pertained to the specific official being recalled or his or her actions on the board.
Gale said the grounds to recall Hitz had sufficient specificity but did not properly meet the definition of the petition’s chosen grounds for recall: misconduct in office.
An anonymous video sent to trustees and media in mid-May edited together clips of Hitz interacting with female students at the graduation ceremony, and deemed his actions inappropriate. In the video, Hitz is shown standing in a line of trustees greeting graduates on stage during the distribution of diplomas, hugging or patting the backs or arms of most students who walked past him. Hitz has denounced the characterization that he was sexually harassing the graduates on multiple occasions, saying he was just greeting them warmly and asking them about their future plans.
In the letter, Gale said “misconduct in office” was defined to mean “violation of law by the officer that impacts the officer’s ability to perform the official duties of the office.” Gale took issue with whether sexual harassment constitutes a violation of law.
“Sexual harassment is vile and despicable and may be an element in or the basis for civil liability, but my research and consultations lead me to conclude that it is not a ‘violation of law’ as intended by the legislature when amending K.S.A. 25-4302 in 2003,” Gale stated in the letter.
Gale said whatever the current conflict at GCCC, he hopes community members address them in a normal election. Recalls are a citizen’s right, he said, but they also tend to be divisive and leave long-lasting wounds in a community.
“I don’t know what the issues are, but hopefully (community members will) find more constructive ways that don’t lead to scars,” he said.
Hitz said he believed the submissions had been denied for the correct reasons and supported Gale’s decision. Terri Worf said she didn't believe anyone on the board had done anything to legally warrant a recall, and those who believe so had no basis for their claims.
"We all believe in ethical behavior and high integrity," she said of the trustees.
Zach Worf said his recall committee will regroup and refile relatively soon, planning to submit paperwork for petitions to recall Terri Worf, Crist and another trustee, if they’re able. He said he was not shocked by the ruling and found the decision fair, agreeing that the group’s phrasing was vague.
Toni Douglass, Atkinson and Zach Worf previously had submitted paperwork for petitions to recall five of the six trustees: Crist, Terri Worf, Steve Martinez, Merilyn Douglass and Blake Wasinger. Richmeier denied those submissions due to it violating a state statute that limits the number of members who can be recalled at once from the same governing body to a majority minus one, which in the case of the board of trustees would be three.
Zach and Terri Worf are cousins by marriage, and Toni and Merilyn Douglass are sisters-in-law.
Atkinson said she was glad that the petition to recall Hitz was denied. As for future filings, she also said the recall committee was still considering which third trustee to include, choosing from Martinez, Wasinger and Merilyn Douglass.
“No one is better or worse than the rest of them,” she said.
The three community members also have stood amidst faculty and community members speaking out against recent controversy at the college, including the GCCC leadership’s response to sexual harassment allegations made against former cheer coach Brice Knapp, a Faculty Senate report that called for GCCC President Herbert Swender’s termination after alleging he created a hostile work environment and showed a lack of concern for the college’s accreditation, and sanctions that were leveled against the volleyball program after the college allowed a former student athlete to live with Athletic Director John Green.
O’Brate said in a statement provided by American Warrior’s in-house counsel Jake Price that he will decide how to proceed after Kansas City lawyer Greg Goheen completes his investigation of the Faculty Senate report. The Board of Trustees retained Goheen earlier this month.
O’Brate previously said there were many reasons Hitz should be recalled from the board, noting the trustee’s alleged misunderstanding of college financials and an uptick of criticism toward GCCC and Swender since Hitz was elected.
Swender’s son, H.J. Swender, is O’Brate’s assistant at American Warrior. Tempel’s son, Tanner, is married to Swender’s daughter, Whitney. Tempel resigned as GCCC public relations and marketing director last month and is now a part-time consultant for the college.
Toni Douglass, Crist, Wiles and Tempel did not return calls seeking comment.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that paperwork was submitted to recall only Terri Worf and Leonard Hitz, listing Worf twice. Paperwork was actually submitted to recall Worf, Hitz and Trustee Jeff Crist.