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It’s not often that I see eye-to-eye with the ACLU, but I agree that Rapid City alderman Sam Kooiker should not have been censured by the city council.

Robert Doody, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota, e-mailed the council: “The democratic process is often harsh, sharp and prone to questionable statements of fact and opinion; however, this liberty to express oneself is at the very heart of the democratic process and to public debate.”

Last week, the city council held a hearing to decide whether to censure Kooiker for his conduct when he queried city employees about Rapid Transit fliers that had to be thrown out and reprinted. Kooiker said he was just doing his job as councilman.

The council voted at about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday to censure Kooiker.

I’ve read the Journal articles about the Kooiker matter, and I’m still not certain what he did that required a hearing and public censure.

I don’t think he did anything wrong.

Kooiker told the Journal he received an anonymous tip that $30,000 in bus schedules had to be thrown out. He asked Public Works Director Robert Ellis and Mayor Alan Hanks for more information. Ellis told him that only about $3,000 in fliers were reprinted.

Kooiker continued to ask questions and received copies of invoices that showed the original brochures cost $5,007, the new fliers cost $1,661 and new signs cost $3,649 – more than $3,000 and less than $30,000.

So far, so good. He acted on a tip and asked enough questions until he got the right answers.

A week later, a formal harassment complaint was filed against Kooiker.

During his time on the council, Kooiker consistently questions city spending. He has probably cast more votes opposing expenditures than anyone else on the city council.

Kooiker’s supporters are taxpayers who think government is wasting their tax dollars. They believe he is acting to protect their interests by ensuring that city officials aren’t squandering their hard-earned money. Kooiker is not afraid to say something is a waste of money.

Naturally, that attitude can create enemies – especially among fellow council members and city officials.

Kooiker has said that the censure process was political because he had angered influential people. When asked about that during the hearing, Kooiker named Hanks, to whom he lost the 2007 mayoral election, Ellis and City Attorney Jason Green as being behind the censure action.

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I don’t know if he’s right about that, but politics can’t be dismissed as a factor.

The censure proceedings succeeded in focusing all the attention on Kooiker and away from the misprinted bus schedules. It’s a classic political maneuver to direct attention away from a potential embarrassment.

I don’t know Kooiker, but he seems genuinely focused on representing his constituents when he asks questions and balks at what he believes is wasteful spending. If that’s a problem, why have a city council at all?

Censuring elected officials when they ask too many questions is a bad road to follow. It can lead to a government with too many secrets.

Good government is one where inquiries are met with answers not accusations.

 I’m with the ACLU on this one.

Contact Randall Rasmussen at randy.rasmussen@rapidcityjournal.com.

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