July 17, 2014

Ballot to restore W. Columbia mayor’s power set for Sept. 30

West Columbia voters go to the polls Sept. 30 to decide whether Mayor Joe Owens should be back in control, but the change wouldn’t begin until fall 2015 if approved.

A push to put Mayor Joe Owens back in charge in West Columbia won’t take effect until fall 2015 if voters adopt the change Sept 30.

Owens and his allies are upset with the delay adopted Thursday by the mayor’s foes on City Council.

The one-year wait to put the change into use if it is adopted in the upcoming referendum “thwarts the will of the people,” Owens said.

Council members say the delay is needed to make a series of changes in City Hall procedures, not a political slap at the mayor.

“We do need that time to go back and revise” to assure an orderly transition from 40-year-old standards, Councilman Tem Miles said.

But Owens said those changes can be accomplished in a few months.

Some of Owens’ allies fear the one-year delay gives council members too much time to search for ways to chip away at the control Owens would gain.

The new set-up would come as Owens and two of five council members feuding with him face re-election next year.

Anger at the delay erupted as city leaders were determining Thursday a date for the referendum.

The referendum is the latest turn in a power struggle among leaders in the Lexington County community of 15,000 residents.

Owens’ allies organized the bid to restore his authority at the ballot after a divided council stripped him of his power April 1. Some members at the time said they were upset with a style they say is intolerant of views he doesn’t like..

“I can kiss babies and cut ribbons,” Owens said. “That’s about all I can do.”

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

If adopted, the plan makes the mayor stronger.

It would put the mayor in charge of managing city services and staff as well as presiding over council decisions.

Owens is keeping the focus on the appearance of being wronged.

He declined to say Thursday whether a shake-up in the 200-employee city staff and other major changes in how services are run will happen if he is in control.

“It’s far too early to talk about that,” he said.

But other city leaders say the change sought would allow Owens to meddle freely in City Hall operations and foster patronage easily abused.

It opens the door to “a dictatorship,” Miles said.

The change sought is similar to what was rejected Dec. 3 in adjoining Columbia.

Both sides are organizing groups headed by community leaders to promote their views and sponsor forums to spread their message.

The decision to delay the start of the change in mayoral control for a year was approved 6-3, with council members Casey Hallman and Teddy Wingard joining Owens in opposition.

Some traditional polling sites may be consolidated for the Sept. 30 referendum, which is estimated to cost nearly $6,700..

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