State Patrol investigating Hitchcock County recall
CULBERTSON, Nebraska -- The Nebraska State Patrol plans to interview Hitchcock County Public Schools patrons who signed petitions seeking to recall three school board members.
School board members Mike Baker, Larry Ferguson and Gary Matson and school superintendent Mike Apple were informed in late August that petition circulators had enough valid signatures to seek the recall of the three men. Petition circulators needed the valid signatures of at least 175 registered voters on each of three petitions that were circulated.
The recall effort followed a successful $7.4 million school bond election approving upgrades and renovations to existing facilities in May.
Despite having gathered enough signatures to call for the recalls, the school board, acting on the advice of its attorney, voted 5-1 in September not to schedule a recall election. At that time, there were questions about whether Shane Rippen of Culbertson, who signed petition documents as sole circulator of the petition, was the only person who circulated the petitions and whether patrons were told that the petitions would save an old school building from demolition and/or reduce property taxes.
Patrons who signed the recall petitions received letters this week from the Nebraska State Patrol indicating that the Patrol is investigating the possibility of criminal violations committed when the recall petitions were circulated and/or submitted.
The Patrol asks patrons who signed the petitions to come to the Ag Complex on the Hitchcock County fairgrounds in Culbertson on Tuesday, Jan. 10, any time between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
The letter from NSP Investigator Clint Elwood reads: "The interviews are to verify that you are the individual who signed the recall petition and that your name was not signed without your knowledge, with some additional follow-up questions."
Elwood writes that each interview will take only a few minutes to complete.
He also writes that the interviews are voluntary. He asks that patrons who are unable to come to the interviews on Jan. 10 contact the NSP office at (308) 350-8050 to schedule another time.
In May, voters approved $7.4 million bonds to finance construction and renovation at school facilities in Culbertson and Trenton, including:
* Demolishing a portion of the existing elementary school in Culbertson, building a new elementary building, and renovations and updates;
* Demolishing a portion of the junior/senior high school building in Trenton, building a new classroom wing, and renovations and updates;
* Preparing and improving the sites of the existing elementary building and junior/senior high buildings; and
* Providing the necessary furniture and apparatus for the school buildings.
In July, Shane Rippen gave these reasons for seeking the recall of Baker, Ferguson and Matson:
* Mike Baker, "has brought his own personal issues to the school board agenda," "led patrons astray during this past bond election" and "knowingly distributed misinformation about the school bond options and was prejudice(d) toward Culbertson residents." Rippen claims Baker's service on the board is a conflict of interest because family members teach and coach at the school.
* Ferguson displays "a lack of consistent leadership as the president of the board. Larry has focused his energy on pleasing the faculty, staff and administration of the school instead of what is best for the whole district, not just what is best for each community. Larry is more influenced by school officials than the taxpayers of the district."
* Matson is being recalled "because he refused to listen to all of the taxpayers of the district. He led the community of Culbertson astray when telling patrons that he supported one school. He is more influenced by fellow board members than his constituents. He has not proved his willingness to speak up for people of the district to the school board."