Is Strong Mayor Best for West Columbia

By Paul Gable

The City of West Columbia will hold a referendum September 30, 2014 to determine whether the city government should change to give current mayor Joe Owens strong mayor powers.

Apparently the real issue here is whether the voters of West Columbia agree with what already seems to be a de facto assumption of strong mayor actions by current mayor Joe Owens.

In the current council form of government, Owens is one of nine council members having one vote and no administrative duties for decisions of policy. The title of mayor makes him nothing more than first among equals, so to speak.

Owens was even removed from setting council agenda and presiding over council meetings by a majority vote of council last spring. At the time, B.J. Unthank was voted to be city council chairman.

Shortly after council voted Unthank into the council chair, a 6-3 majority of council members voted to conduct an independent, “internal review of various incidents and activities involving city officials and personnel.”

The report, produced by independent attorney Robert Bolchoz, concluded, “Mayor Owens has caused, or facilitated, the circumvention or manipulation of the City’s established policies, procedures, and regulations in order to reward his political allies and establish a system of patronage well beyond that which the average citizen, taxpayer, or voter would expect.”

Owens refuted sections of the report in an August 7, 2014 press release saying, “This is simply another step in a scheme by certain Council members and their political allies to damage Mayor Joe Owen’s reputation to the greatest extent possible in the run-up to the referendum on changing the form of West Columbia’s government coming up on September 30.”

However, one area of the Bolchoz report that was not refuted in the press release was the statement, “More than one individual I interviewed indicated that it was routine practice for Mayor Owens to order the public works department to provide some type of service that violated the City ordinances. I was informed of several instances in which the Mayor directed the head of public works to have construction debris removed from properties, and in which the Mayor ordered the clean up of private property at taxpayer expense as favor to a citizen.”

The mayor went into great detail attempting to refute portions of the report, but failed to address the above statements, which are possibly the most damaging.

Strong mayor or not, the use of city employees to provide services on private property as a favor to a citizen is not political patronage. It is public corruption. These statements should be followed up by city council and, if they are correct, an immediate investigation into the misuse of public funds should be requested from SLED.

According to groups that document this information, approximately 80% of all public corruption cases come from cities with a strong mayor form of government.

If this is already happening in West Columbia, it should be obvious to voters that NO to a strong mayor form of government is the proper vote to cast on September 30th.

Link to Bolchoz Report: West Columbia Report

Link to Owens Press Release:


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