The Rapid City Council censured Alderman Sam Kooiker six weeks ago, but two months from now, when voters head to the polls, the first public reprimand of an elected official in Rapid City history could still be fresh in everyone’s minds.
The longtime Ward 2 alderman will not face a challenger in June’s municipal election, despite his censure in February for what his peers saw as conduct unbefitting an elected official.
But with the ballot for Rapid City Council finalized, it’s becoming clear Kooiker’s censure could play a part in more than just his own ward.
Of 14 registered candidates, at least one-third have mentioned the censure as a reason for running, and even those who didn’t have heard from residents who feel strongly about the issue.
“It’s not going to affect Sam; he’s running unopposed,” Frank Robbins, one of six Ward 5 candidates, said. “But it could affect the rest of us. People are pretty divided on it. If they have a feeling at all, it’s one way or another. They’re pretty adamant.”
The biggest test of that theory, candidates agree, could be in Ward 4.
Council president Lloyd LaCroix, who voted in favor of censure, is running for re-election. Both challengers, John Roberts and Jordan Mason, have come out strongly against the council’s decision.
“The truest test to the effect of the censure will be the Ward 4 election,” Kooiker said. “It’s the city council president and the only person who voted for the censure that will be on the ballot.”
“That will be one of the ways to see if there is a lasting effect -- if one of the leaders of the censure efforts is required to answer for it.”
But LaCroix said his record over the past four years speaks louder than one controversial vote.
The two-term alderman was instrumental in establishing the city’s Strengthening Families Task Force, a broad-based effort to improve the lives of the community’s families and children, and he has supported a number of projects that have benefited his North Rapid constituents, including the library branch at General Beadle Elementary School and new playgrounds at Scott Mallow, College and Vickie Powers parks.
“My record speaks beyond that,” LaCroix said. “Everyone knows that I’m fair to everybody.”
Roberts sees things differently. The two-time council candidate came in second to Alderman Ron Kroeger in 2009 and was planning on sitting out the 2010 election.
But LaCroix’s censure vote changed Roberts’ mind.
“I didn’t think Lloyd was doing that bad of a job in city council. I know Lloyd. I like Lloyd,” Roberts said. “But that’s just something that, in my opinion, was wrong. It should never happen again, and anyone who voted for that should be put out of office.”
Roberts said he hopes the censure becomes a “huge issue” for residents in a ward with historically low voter turnout.
“It was a slap in the face to the voter,” Roberts said. “They basically told the voters if you have a problem, don’t come to your council person.”
Mason, the other Ward 4 candidate, said the fact that LaCroix is president of the council that censured Kooiker isn’t going to do him any favors in trying to get re-elected, either.
“It was so blatantly clear that the public did not want that to happen, but they did it anyway,” Mason said. “It became clear to everyone that they’re not listening to us anymore. People are waking up and realizing that our government is out of hand.”
LaCroix, though, stands by his vote and said the censure was about holding Kooiker accountable to the city’s Code of Conduct for Elected Officials, not “trying to silence Sam.”
“It was a consensus of the council that directed the investigation. When the results came back, it was a consensus of the council of what needed to be done -- a public reprimand,” LaCroix said.
LaCroix admits he has received calls from constituents criticizing his decision, but with each one, he does his best to explain his side of the issue. Many have told him that while they disagree with the censure, they agree with him more often than not.
“I was elected by the majority to do the best job that I can, and with all the information I had, I supported what I believed was right,” LaCroix said. “I couldn’t say, just because I’m up for re-election, I can’t do this. Then I’d feel guilty.
“If I do not get re-elected because of the public reprimand, at least I know I did the right thing. I’ll stand by that.”
Nearby in Ward 5, the censure is also on the minds of voters, even without an incumbent running for re-election.
Candidate Bonny Petersen guessed two-thirds of residents she met while campaigning voiced concerns about Kooiker’s censure, an issue she then mentioned specifically in her campaign literature.
Part of the censure’s effect could be in the way candidates frame their campaigns, Petersen said. She plans to campaign as an advocate for everyone, not just the status quo.
“Mr. Kooiker appealed to people because he represented the people, and I don’t think people like to see someone scolded for trying to do the people’s work,” Petersen said. “Mr. Kooiker may not have gone about it the right way -- that I don’t know, I don’t know all the behind-the-scenes details -- but that’s who he appealed to.”
All candidates, though, agreed the censure cannot be the only issue in the election, no matter how strongly they or residents feel about it.
Ward 5 candidate Ron Sasso said while the censure was what crystallized his desire to run for alderman, it wasn’t his only reason.
“Even though it’s something that motivated people to run, it’s one issue,” Sasso said. “And even though the censure was a big issue that touched on a lot of things, what will be the difference is what each candidate is bringing to the table beyond being motivated by the censure. What types of change will they bring?”
Contact Emilie Rusch at 394-8453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.