West Columbia Mayor Joe Owens bent the rules to reward friends and intimidate those who challenge him, a report made public Tuesday alleges.
The review stopped short of accusing Owens of doing anything illegal but said he routinely relied on threats of job loss or demotion to get city workers to do what he wanted since taking office nearly three years ago.
“Mayor Owens has caused, or facilitated, the circumvention or manipulation of the city’s established polices, procedures and regulation 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,” the report said.
Owens called the conclusion “a hatchet job” arranged by foes on City Council who stripped him of his control over their agenda.
Some council members said the report justified their move reducing Owens largely to a figurehead.
“This will explain some of the reasons that we had to do the things we’ve done,” Councilman B.J. Unthank said.
The review promises to become a centerpiece of what Owens foes warn will happen at City Hall should voters put him back in charge in a Sept. 30 election.
The report “is designed to circumvent the vote,” Owens said.
That referendum was forced by the signatures of voters gathered on petitions circulated by Owens’ allies.
Matt Lambries, a former city police officer for five years, told council members the findings “shed negative and positive light on both sides.”
The $15,000 report – paid for by city taxpayers – was prepared by Robert Bolchoz, a Columbia lawyer hired in May as an independent investigator.
His conclusions are based on more than 30 interviews with the approximately 200 city employees along with four council members equally divided between Owens’ allies and critics as well as reviews of scores of city records.
Bolchoz, a former prosecutor, said the mayor’s tactics are “most pronounced” in police operations.
Matt Edwards, an Owens protege, “in effect took over” running public safety and “engaged in various inappropriate activity” such as fixing traffic tickets before his dismissal as second-in-command in March, the report alleges.
Those charges are “a complete falsehood” that came from officers unhappy with his demands for better performance, Edwards said.
Owens and Edwards said they were not asked to reply to the complaints made against them by employees whom the report doesn’t identify.
Employees were promised confidentiality but some matters they brought up were omitted because of insufficient substantiation or they were outside the parameters that council members set, Bolchoz said in the report.