By Paul Gable
It is one week until September 30th, the day West Columbia voters will decide whether they want to change their form of city government to one with a strong mayor.
To add to the drama surrounding the vote, former West Columbia police Maj. Matt Edwards filed a lawsuit against the city claiming he was dismissed improperly and defamed by a subsequent report commissioned by city council.
According to several sources familiar with the city, Mayor Joe Owens gave Edwards a $10,000 raise shortly before his position was made redundant in a reorganization of the force last spring.
Owens, it should be noted, does not have the power to give anyone a raise on his own with the current council form of government. But, he did it anyway.
According to those same sources, the move toward a strong mayor referendum started after Edwards’ dismissal with Edwards leading the effort to get enough signatures on a petition to mandate the referendum.
At least six of the nine members of city council are supporting keeping the West Columbia city government with its current council form of government.
Last spring this majority stripped Owens of the power to set council agendas and removed him as chair of council meetings. The report Edwards’ lawsuit refers to was commissioned shortly after that vote with independent attorney Robert Bolchoz producing it.
One particularly disturbing conclusion of the Bolchoz report said, “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.”
And Owens is not a strong mayor now. According to independent groups that study local government, 80% of all public corruption cases come from cities with a strong mayor form of government.
It’s the old adage – “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Voters in the Town of Latta changed their form of government from a strong mayor to a council form earlier this year, because of what they considered to be arbitrary political moves by Mayor Earl Bullard.Latta
A strong mayor form of government is generally not a good way to govern a city especially one where an independent report already found “a system of patronage well beyond that which the average citizen, taxpayer, or voter would expect.”