The votes are in, the citizens of Cowley County have spoken and now it is time for the Cowley College Board of Trustees to act.
We re-elected three incumbents — Ned Graham, Bob Juden and Brian Sanderholm — to the board, and added to their number former county commissioner Gary Wilson.
Additionally, Sumner County elected its first-ever trustee, Glennis Zimmerman, to a two-year term. Add in JoLynn Foster and Jill Long, who each have two years left in their terms, and you have seven trustees.
But wait! With the addition of Sumner County’s trustee, the board has been expanded to eight people.
So who is the eighth trustee? Well, this is where it gets a little complicated.
It turns out this last seat has been vacant since March 20, when former trustee Sid Regnier resigned due to health issues. (http://acdailybytes.com/regnier-honored-service-cowley-college)
About a month later, Cowley College President Dennis Rittle said the trustees did not have immediate plans to replace Regnier. “With respect to filling the currently vacant position … the trustees plan to deliberate on the process,” he said. (http://acdailybytes.com/cowley-college-trustees-koma-training)
Perhaps this was because the board already had been ordered to attend mandatory training on the Kansas Open Meetings Act due to a violation that occurred the last time there was a board vacancy.
After Jim Ramirez resigned in May 2016, the college advertised the vacancy and had five applicants — Jeremy Biddle, Jill Long, Bonnie Niles, Forrest Smith and Mark Speck. (http://www.ctnewsonline.com/news/article_5f65bbd8-3f48-11e6-9484-6798b58a2973.html)
Yes, I applaud the Cowley College Board of Trustees for taking more time to contemplate a replacement for Regnier than they did for Ramirez. However, there is such a thing as too much contemplation.
At the time of this writing (Nov. 15), Regnier’s seat — which represents one-seventh of Cowley County’s citizen representation on a board that annually assesses around 20 mills of property taxes — has been vacant for 240 days. That’s two-thirds of this entire year! Even worse, it represents more than 16 percent of Regnier’s four-year term!
How did this come to be? When the City Commission of Arkansas City had to fill a pair of vacancies due to resignations in the summer of 2016, it was required to fill each position within 30 days, giving the commissioners only two meetings to deliberate replacements for each departed commissioner.
Cities are required by K.S.A. 14-1305 to fill these vacancies within a defined period of time. But school boards and community college boards of trustees do not appear to have any such requirement. All the college is required to do is to publish a legal notice of the vacancy and then wait at least 15 days to fill it.
That is what occurred when Ramirez resigned. The notice was published in early May 2016. (http://www.ctnewsonline.com/news/top_story/article_50b59340-58f5-57a3-a790-6f6890857840.html)
Juden announced the five candidates would be interviewed in closed-door executive sessions, rather than in public. To his credit, Speck withdrew his application in objection to this decision.
“It would be difficult during the interview for a current trustee to keep the line of questioning consistent, fair and unbiased in a closed, private session,” Speck said. (http://www.ctnewsonline.com/news/article_5f24d3da-43d9-11e6-be8b-cfafcaeef229.html)
The trustees later reneged and decided to make the interviews open during their July 12 meeting. (http://www.ctnewsonline.com/news/article_478975f0-4898-11e6-ade5-5fd1625c48ee.html)
But when the time came for full transparency, they failed, casting secret paper ballots to elect Long in a move that later was ordered by then-County Attorney Chris Smith to be rescinded and replaced by a open vote in front of the public. (http://acdailybytes.com/cowley-board-new-trustee-koma-violation | http://www.ctnewsonline.com/news/article_75c55230-52c6-11e6-b26f-57e60a4b432e.html)
It took almost a full year for Smith’s ordered KOMA training to be completed. By then, the newest vacancy had become a reality. After delaying for a couple of months, the trustees finally announced through Dr. Rittle that they would not make up their minds about a replacement for Regnier — or even officially advertise the vacancy, thus triggering the 15-day countdown — until after the Nov. 7 election. (http://acdailybytes.com/regnier-seat-board-trustees-vacant-election)
“The statute does not specify how soon after vacancy the publication must take place, nor does the statute set forth a time frame in which the vacancy must be filled,” said County Attorney Larry Schwartz.
“The trustees plan to wait until after the general election in November before making a decision on this matter,” Rittle said. The only logical reason to do this, in my opinion, is that the trustees wanted to see who came in fifth in the voting. There is no other defensible reason to have waited almost eight months.
This was the solution put forth more than a year ago by Speck. “Either select the candidate who had the greatest number of votes from the last public vote, or have candidates submit a standardized questionnaire from the board to the local paper so that it is public record,” Speck said. (http://www.ctnewsonline.com/news/article_5f65bbd8-3f48-11e6-9484-6798b58a2973.html)
The election was a week ago. Those results will never be more relevant or useful than they are now.
In my opinion, there is no doubt that Kansas statute needs to be amended to put the same requirement to fill a vacancy on all taxing boards that the City Commission currently has to follow. I certainly hope Rep. Anita Judd-Jenkins and Sen. Larry Alley will consider sponsoring legislation next year to do just that.
But that change won’t happen any sooner than July 1, 2018. In the meantime, we still have a vacancy to fill, and it has stayed open for far too long. Now is the time for the trustees to act!
My good friend, Michael Bergagnini, received 1,115 votes in the Nov. 7 election. That is just 177 votes fewer than the newest trustee, Gary Wilson. Mike was the only other candidate to receive more than 1,000 votes, proving that he has more of a mandate than just from the Arkansas City-Parkerfield area.
Mike is the obvious, most legitimate and — frankly — the only candidate the Cowley College Board of Trustees should consider to replace Sid Regnier for the remaining two years of his term.
I call upon the college trustees to appoint Mike Bergagnini to the vacancy no later than their Dec. 18 meeting so he can take office in January with the rest of the newly elected trustees.
I further call upon my fellow Cowley County citizens to write similar letters and make their opinions on this issue known to the trustees, who have shown they are capable of making the right decision, in the right way, when we the people are looking over their shoulders and telling them the right thing to do.