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The Rapid City Council voted early Wednesday morning to censure alderman Sam Kooiker.

At roughly 2:30 a.m., councilors Bill Waugh, Lloyd LaCroix, Malcom Chapman, Karen Gundersen Olson, Ron Kroeger and Deb Hadcock voted in favor of censure. Ron Weifenbach, Patti Martinson, Aaron Costello voted against.

The council listened to questions and comments for more than six hours trying to decide whether to censure Alderman Sam Kooiker. A crowded meeting drew more than 100 residents who waited past 11 p.m. to voice their opinion of the longtime Ward 2 alderman and the council’s action.

Kooiker supporters far outnumbered detractors in what was a long, tense hearing to determine whether to publicly reprimand Kooiker for conduct toward Rapid Transit manager Rich Sagen unbefitting an elected official.

In lengthy opening comments, Kooiker and his attorney, Talbot Wieczorek of Gunderson Palmer Nelson & Ashmore, emphasized that the alderman had done nothing but represent the concerns of his constituents.

“I get results. I’m proud of my record. I’m not a fancy dancer, but I get the job done,” Kooiker said. “It’s important to that person, which means it’s important to me.”

Frustration surfaced as soon as council members began questioning Kooiker, with some aldermen repeating their questions, unhappy with the answers they were being provided.

Mayor Alan Hanks had to interrupt all parties numerous times to remind them to keep both questions and answers “very specific and pointed” and not stray off-topic.

Aldermen focused much of their time on whether Kooiker knew the value of Rapid Transit fliers that had been thrown away before he said at the Sept. 15, 2009 Public Works Committee meeting that they were worth $30,000.

The resolution of censure hinges on whether Kooiker knowingly made inaccurate statements about the fliers and other public comments “designed to question the effectiveness of the management of the transit division without any good faith basis to do so.” In a Sept. 8 e-mail about the subject, Public Works Director Robert Ellis told Kooiker no more than $3,000 worth of fliers had been printed.

“I’m a little frustrated that I’ve asked the question four or five times. I’m not asking to show me an email, I’m just asking Mr. Kooiker whether he’s aware,” Alderman Ron Kroeger said. “Yes or no.”

In response to the questions, Kooiker said he was merely trying to verify whether the number Ellis had provided before that meeting was accurate. City employees who Kooiker termed “multiple and credible sources” had told him the value was closer to $30,000.

“I asked if it was possible to get the invoices. I hadn’t received the response. I simply brought it up on the next day,” Kooiker said.  

First elected in 2002, Kooiker, 35, has won election handily in each of his four aldermanic campaigns. He came within 685 votes of the capturing the mayor’s office in 2007.

But his operating style has caused conflict at times with city staff and fellow elected officials, and on Tuesday, aldermen were considering whether to find him in violation of the Rapid City Code of Conduct for Elected Officials.

The code calls on elected officials to be honest, fair and impartial, respectful and courteous to the public and to “insure that the workplace is free from hostility or harassment in any form and that the workplace is conducive to the provision of services in an efficient and effective manner.”

Sagen filed a harassment complaint in September over what he called a pattern of “unwarranted, unwelcome and abusive conduct on the part of Alderman Kooiker” that was affecting his ability to lead the transit division.

Sagen, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, provided a brief statement that was read to the council. He said while he has no “personal animosity” toward Kooiker, he stands by the grievance as something he needed to do.

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“For any department to function, there has to be an established chain of command and an established grievance process,” Sagen wrote.

Kooiker and Wieczorek went on the offensive for more than an hour, arguing the details of the Rapid Transit incident, the resolution of censure and the actual content of the more than 1,000 pages of e-mails released by the city.

Wieczorek said by definition, harassment means conduct that causes emotional distress and serves no legitimate purpose. The e-mails Kooiker sent to both Sagen and Ellis, he said, were primarily seeking answers for constituent questions and concerns.

“Is this harassment of Mr. Sagen?” Wieczorek said. “Was there an attempt at a legitimate purpose?”

Included in the e-mails are one-sentence messages, thank you e-mails, messages repeated multiple times and messages forwarded directly from constituents, Wieczorek said.

“He asks questions in a way that you might not ask questions. But that doesn’t make his questions wrong. He approaches his advocacy for constituents with zeal, with gusto. That doesn’t make that approach wrong. He does not back down, he follows up. That does not make his approach wrong,” Wieczorek said.

After a short break, aldermen began asking questions of Kooiker and Wieczorek and then were to proceed into questions to the outside investigator hired by the city to look into Sagen’s complaint. Dozens of residents had already turned in requests to comment on the issue.

Contact Emilie Rusch at 394-8453 or emilie.rusch@rapidcityjournal.com.

 

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