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Letter to the Editor: Why Should I Vote No to Strong Mayor?

West Columbia has operated under the council form of government for over 4 decades. We don’t think our city should change from a checks and balances form to a strong mayor form just because this mayor is unable to work with council. If he were a good leader to start with and was able to work with people with different points of view, we would not be in this situation. Much like the president has to work with Congress, the mayor has to work with council. Giving someone more power because they can’t work together is not the answer.

Many popular mayors, like Steve Benjamin, who won with 64% of the vote were still denied their request for strong mayor because people do not want to give too much power to one person. A city administrator (like Jenny Cunningham who has worked with 3 mayors) can be fired by council if they do a bad job. If the mayor does a bad job, you’re stuck with him for 4 years.

If the next mayor does a bad job, you’re stuck for another 4 years. A city administrator has the education and resume that proves their ability to manage the day to day operations of a large city….a mayor doesn’t have to have those qualifications.

With strong mayor, the people who manage our departments can be changed with every new mayor. Good people will be lost because the mayor wants to appoint people who agree with his/her agenda. Department heads who have done an excellent job for years can be replaced. Can we afford to go through this with every new mayor we elect?

The only power that has been taken away from the mayor is the power to preside over council meetings and that is because he was unable or unwilling to follow the rules set forth in Robert’s Rules of Order. As a result, meetings were contentious and unruly. Since appointing BJ Unthank as mayor pro tem, order has been restored.

Mayor Owens contends that he was blocked from attending budget meetings, which is not true. Council held a meeting with all of the departments and not only was the mayor late, but soon after arriving, he took a phone call, left the meeting and never returned.

The mayor has overstepped his authority and made questionable decisions on many occasions:

  • Appointed an assistant chief of police w/o a vote of council or the approval of the police chief. This was a good officer that was put in a no-win situation by the mayor. His appointment undermined the chief’s authority and made it an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved.
  • Unlawfully detained a motorist
  • Fired Major Jackie Brothers on the same day she received the highest review given by the

police chief and demoted to other officers without cause

  • Created an atmosphere of intimidation according to a multitude of city employees

In his letter online, the mayor refers to the “tyranny of the majority”. Since when in the history of our country has the majority been considered tyrannical?

In short, you may like the mayor and everything he has done, but do you really want to change the form of government that has worked for our city for 40 years just because this mayor can’t work with this council? This decision will affect our city long after the mayor and the council members are gone. Think about what is best for our city, not this one mayor and this one group of council members.

 

Bruce Brutschy

Co-Chair, West Columbia United

 

Official Statement from the office of  Mayor Joe Owens

 

NEWS RELEASE
Thursday, August 7, 2014

On Tuesday, August 5, the West Columbia City Council elected to publish the Memorandum generated by an attorney named Robert Bolchoz as the culmination of his “internal review of various incidents and activities involving City officials and personnel.” 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. From the beginning, it should be noted, there was no expectation that this process would be fair and unbiased. Rather than refer this “procedural audit” to the City attorney, Nikki Setzler, as one would expect, West Columbia City Councilman Temus “Tem” Miles was insistent that Mr. Bolchoz should conduct this process. Mr. Miles has asserted that he doesn’t know Mr. Bolchoz well and that he is truly independent, but the two do, in fact, share some common connections. They both graduated from the Citadel and they are members of the Greater Columbia Citadel Club. Councilman Miles is actually the President of that alumni association. And in 2009, when Mr. Bolchoz was running in the Republican primary for State Attorney General, an attorney in Mr. Miles’s law firm made at least two contributions to Bolchoz’s campaign. In any event, Councilman Miles has not made clear the circumstances under which Mr. Bolchoz first came to his attention as a possible candidate to conduct this “investigation” into official city procedures. One thing is clear – the entire vetting process consisted of Mr. Miles suggesting that Mr. Bolchoz be hired for this vague purpose, and four other members of Council agreeing to spend city funds for that purpose exclusively based upon Mr. Miles’s advice.

It was therefore no surprise that Mayor Joe Owens proved to be the true target of this politically-motivated “hatchet job” (a process which has cost the taxpayers of West Columbia at least $15,000). What is surprising is that there appears to be little pretense of fairness or lack of bias in this process. For instance, many times in the report Mr. Bolchoz makes claims such as Mayor Owens establishing “an oppressive atmosphere of intimidation within City Hall,” often through “direct and/or indirect threats of retaliation,” including termination. Nowhere, however, does Mr. Bolchoz make note of the fact that Mayor Owens has never fired a City employee. Given the present Council-managed form of government, he in fact hasn’t even had such authority.

Other than the Council Members that Mr. Bolchoz talked to, all of the interviewees in this process remained anonymous, making it very difficult to test their individual credibility. This becomes especially important where there is reliance on a single individual as a source of information. Numerous times throughout this report, Mr. Bolchoz relies on single individuals as sources of information, with no corroboration from other sources. (Even where more than one individual is indicated as providing a particular bit of information, there is usually no discernable inquiry into where these individuals have obtained their information.) Often a simple check for corroboration would have discredited the claim; for instance, where a single police officer made the allegation that then-Major Matt Edwards (implicated by his association with the Mayor) had placed him on suspension for objecting to Edwards’ orders that he drop traffic tickets, a check of that officer’s personnel file would have revealed that he was in fact suspended for receiving numerous well documented complaints from various sources.

This is not the only instance where Mr. Bolchoz turns a blind eye to contradictory information that should be revealed by even a rudimentary investigation into the allegations in this document. At one point, he relates an incident where Edwards and a number of other officers responded to a complaint of three dogs running loose. According to Bolchoz, “[m]ore than one of those officers indicated that the dogs were not threatening.” Not only did Edwards order the shooting of the non-threatening dogs, according to these individuals he did so in a bizarre “firing squad manner as he raised his arm and lowered it while calling ‘Fire!’” There was, however, another witness to this incident: the owner of the property who had called the police to the scene. This individual – Mayor Pro Tem Casey Hallman – was also interviewed by Bolchoz, but, despite the fact that he must have known this connection, he never questioned her regarding this incident. If he had inquired into this incident with Casey Hallman (an unbiased third party), it would have painted a very different picture. By the time that police officers arrived, she was in fact being physically threatened by this pack of dogs, which were of pit bull mix stock. Seeing no other reasonable alternative, Edwards reluctantly made the decision to have the dogs shot to avoid physical injury to a West Columbia citizenor to any West Columbia police officers, but he certainly didn’t do it in any ridiculous “firing squad manner;” the scene was far more chaotic than that implies. This incident was therefore simply one of an officer doing his duty to protect the citizens of West Columbia.

Where Bolchoz was unable to avoid information contradictory to this focus on discrediting Mayor Owens, it appears that he simply disregarded it. During his interview with Mayor Pro Tem Hallman, they discussed a March 10, 2014 meeting between West Columbia Police Chief Dennis Tyndall, Mayor Joe Owens, the Mayor Pro Tem and City Administrator Jenny Cunningham. This is the meeting that has garnered some attention due to the fact that it was secretly recorded by Chief Tyndall (according to Bolchoz’s Memorandum) and that recording distributed in part to the local media by City Councilman Miles. (Here it should be noted that Mr. Bolchoz appears to have no problem with the fact that this recording was made in violation of Policy 7.15 of the West Columbia Police Department which prohibits such recordings by City police officers.) In part based on this secret recording, Mr. Bolchoz explains in the report that he believes that this was a “special committee meeting.” He omits, however, any reference to the fact that the Mayor Pro Tem – who was in attendance throughout the meeting – denied that this was a meeting of a “special committee.”

What’s more, during this conversation Bolchoz and Mayor Pro Tem Hallman discussed email correspondence that took place on March 18, 2014. On that date, Police Chief Tyndall sent an e-mail message to Casey Hallman regarding the fact that he had begun the “reorganization process” (in this case, the process of firing Edwards without cause) that had been discussed in the March 10 meeting. In this e-mail, Chief Tyndall goes out of his way to refer to this meeting of city officials as “the Police Committee meeting.” The Mayor Pro Tem, in an e-mail reply, makes it clear that it was never her understanding that she had been appointed to a police committee. Moreover, she goes on to explain in no uncertain terms that she had contacted the City Administrator and that this was Ms. Cunningham’s opinion as well. When this is coupled with all of Mayor Joe Owens’s public statements regarding this meeting, it is evident that three of the four individuals present had a clear understanding that no “special committee” had been appointed. In his interview with Casey Hallman, Bolchoz in fact admitted that this e-mail message from Chief Tyndall was an obvious unsuccessful ploy to establish a “paper trail” to support the assertion that the March 10 meeting involved a special committee. To avoid this complicating evidence, any reference to this e-mail correspondence was simply omitted from Bolchoz’s report.

There is inadequate space here to address every allegation included in Mr. Bolchoz’s Memorandum. This release is simply intended highlight the biased, unfair and inaccurate nature of this “investigation” and the information on which its conclusions are based. The unfair nature of this process is probably best evidenced by the fact that Mayor Joe Owens and Matt Edwards were never approached to answer these allegations while Mr. Bolchoz was putting together his report. Mayor Owens will be glad to further address these allegations in the days and weeks to come, with one exception that will be dealt with here and here alone: the accusation that he allowed his grandson to use his security swipe card to enter the police department. He admits that he allowed his grandson access to the police department; his grandson was selling cookies for a fundraiser and the Mayor thought some of the police officers that his grandson knew might be interested in making a purchase. Mayor Owens will not entertain any more petty allegations or inquiries that serve to drag members of his family into this matter.

The time, energy and resources of the City of West Columbia have been wasted the last few months in a very unfortunate attempt to damage the reputation of Mayor Joe Owens and the reputation of Matt Edwards. This has been a politically motivated process designed to better the position of certain City officials as the date for the referendum on a possible change in the form of city government approaches. Obviously, any form of municipal government can be abused; West Columbia, unfortunately, has become a case study in how such abuse can occur with a Council form of government.

 

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