August 21, 2014

‘Spectacle’ in West Columbia: Tempers flare between mayor, councilman at news conference

West Columbia Mayor Joe Owens’ planned attack on a review accusing him of misconduct instead turned into an exchange of insults with a political foe.

West Columbia Mayor Joe Owens’ planned attack on a review accusing him of misconduct instead turned into an exchange of insults Thursday with a political foe.

Owens’ characterization of the review as “a pack of lies” came amid frequent interuptions by City Councilman Tem Miles, who arrived unexpectedly at City Hall to hear what the mayor planned to say at a news conference.

The event quickly evolved into extended bickering between the pair.

Owens initially balked at talking unless Miles departed.

“I’m not saying a word as long as you’re here,” said Owens, adding that Miles “wants to make a spectacle of it.”

Miles refused to leave, calling Owens “childish” and saying that any gathering at a public facility “is not an invitations-only place.”

Owens led reporters from a meeting room to his office, and the door was locked so Miles couldn’t enter.

Chip Burn, the mayor’s lawyer, said Owens didn’t want “squatters” in his private space.

“Come back and see us when you’re welcome,” Owens told Miles.

“Enjoy this office as long as you have it,” Miles replied.

Police soon unlocked the door to admit Miles into the mayor’s office.

He stood quietly for a while before challenging some of the mayor’s statements about the review and exchanging insults with Owens and Burn.

‘You’re a liar,” Miles concluded. “The mayor can’t keep his story straight.”

Miles also trade verbal jabs with Burn at times.

“I wouldn’t expect a better opinion from a protege of Richard Breibart,” Miles interjected at one point, referring to a prominent Lexington lawyer now in prison for stealing money from clients.

The exchanges led Owens to tell Miles to “get out of here.”

Amid the bickering, Burn said some aspects of the review critical of Owens are “a collection of lies and distortions.”

He challenged three of the more than 30 conclusions in the review ordered by council members in conflict with Owens, saying:

• Dogs shot by police in October 2012 were not tame but a wild pack that threatened the safety of residents, according to a police report.
• An unidentified police officer was required to be paid while away for specialized training in mid-2013, not fraudulently given salary.
• A meeting that Owens and some council members had with Police Chief Dennis Tyndall in March was a conversation, not a secret committee hidden from other city leaders and the public.

The review is full of “hearsay, rumor and innuendo,” Burn said.

The review at the center of the conflict cost city taxpayers $15,000. It was done by Robert Bolchoz, a Columbia lawyer hired in May as an independent investigator by council members at odds with Owens.

The review – made public Aug. 5 – chastises Owens on several matters, including allowing his grandson to go into police offices to solicit donations for a youth fundraiser.

It also alleges that Owens regularly bends rules to reward friends and intimidate those who question him – but stopped short of saying he’s done anything illegal.

Those conclusions are based on more than 30 interviews with about 200 city employees and four council members equally divided between Owens’ allies and critics, as well as an examination of city records.

Many of the claims are “inconsequential and taken out of context,” Burn said.

Miles came under fire Thursday from Owens for an out-of-town discussion of five council members about the petition drive that forced a Sept. 30 ballot on a proposal seeking to overturn council’s move of stripping Owens of his control over council agendas.

Miles said the meeting was private because the petitions hadn’t been turned in yet.

But that session violated the state’s open-meeting requirements, since it dealt with public matters, said Bill Rogers executive director of the S.C. Press Association.

“It was illegal, clearly,” Rogers said. “It’s cut and dried.”

The tension that erupted Thursday is the latest skirmish in a battle in the Lexington County community of 15,000 residents over the push to restore Owens to power as well as put him in charge of the daily operation of City Hall.

“You have been a direct witness to the behavior and character of some of the city officials with whom the mayor is forced to work,” Burn said after the exchanges. “The mayor still holds out hope that there can be an eventual reconciliation, but today’s events were most definitely a step in the wrong direction.”

Miles agreed that ill will is mounting.

“Certainly, not everything that is going on is pretty,” he said.

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