Mayor seeks to regain edge in West Columbia

tflach@thestate.comApril 25, 2014 

West Columbia Mayor Joe Owens

— West Columbia Mayor Joe Owens and allies want to give city residents the chance to restore his oversight of City Council agendas and discussion.

Petitions are circulating seeking a referendum on putting the mayor in charge again.

It’s the latest turn in a power struggle among leaders in the Lexington County community of 15,000 residents.

Owens’ effort will take slightly more than 1,200 signatures from voters who live there for the ballot to happen.

The effort comes after five council members on April 1 stripped him of authority over their actions.

A strong-mayor approach that some communities have – but which was rejected in adjoining Columbia Dec. 3 – would be put in place if Owens’ plan wins.

The mayor and friends decided on the showdown at the polls as the best way to settle the feud instead of a legal battle to reclaim power he lost.

“This is really the only secure way to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Owens said.

If the petition drive is successful, the ballot would occur within 90 days after determination that sufficient signatures were obtained.

Councilman Tem Miles, a foe of the mayor, predicted the petition drive will succeed. “I welcome the chance for our citizens to take it up,” he said.

But the outcome of the ballot would be a toss-up once residents realize that Owens would control the daily operation of City Hall as well as leading council sessions, he said.

“This is an attempt to return one person to a position he no longer has,” Miles said.

It’s important for a mayor – the only leader elected citywide – to have more clout than the “very diminished capacity” forced on him, Owens said.

His management of council sessions was taken away after some council members said they are upset with Owens’ style, which they said is intolerant of views he doesn’t like.

Owens says he is being penalized for outspokenness and taking away council perks.

Councilman B.J. Unthank – an Owens critic – was selected to run council sessions, with that role to be rotated yearly.

The tone of the campaign already promises to be nasty.

Opponents will spotlight examples of what they see as the city run as “the Joe Owens Foundation where he does not follow proper procedures,” Miles said.

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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