Local and State News

Mayor-Council Power Struggles Boil Over in Chapin, West Columbia

By Al Dozier
Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The fallout among feuding councils and mayors in West Columbia and Chapin is still going strong.

And it’s getting nasty.

In Chapin — where last month Town Council members unsuccessfully sued Mayor Skip Wilson for overstepping his authority — an attorney for Wilson went before Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper Friday seeking to find his enemies on council in civil contempt. Wilson also announced over the weekend that he has suspended Town Clerk Adrienne Thompson for alleged financial irregularities. Town receptionist Vicki Azarigian was also dismissed from her job.

In West Columbia — where City Council members have voted to curtail Mayor Joe Owens’ powers — the mayor has launched a campaign to have voters approve a strong mayor type of government. If Owens is able to get the necessary signatures, more than 1,200, the referendum could prove to be an opportunity for voters to have their say.

The next development in Chapin will be up to the courts. According to attorney Andy Syrett, who represented the Chapin council members, Judge Cooper took the arguments from both sides “under advisement” and will make a decision in the next 10 days.

The council members at odds with Wilson — Vivian “Bibi” Atkins, Kay Hollis and Robbie Frick — recently held a special meeting in which they adopted measures designed to give Council authority over agenda items and to provide for payment of receipts that Wilson has not approved.

Wilson considered the meeting unauthorized and did not attend. Councilman Gregg White, who has sided with Wilson in the conflict, also did not attend.

Thompson, the town clerk, says Wilson told her not to post notice of that meeting, but says she did it anyway to comply with the rules and regulations of the town. The mayor told her at that time that she would lose her job if she didn’t comply with his request.
“That’s the reason I lost my job,” Thompson says.

As for allegations of misuse of town money, Thompson says Wilson is referring to town funds spent on the new town hall and a personal assistance loan that has been repaid. The payments were authorized by former Mayor Stan Shealy.But Wilson said in a statement emailed to local news media that Thompson was suspended with pay “as result of an ongoing investigation about suspected allegations of misappropriation of town funds, unauthorized purchasing as well as purchases in excess of authorized town ordinance spending limits, unauthorized personal loans to town employees, improper financial reporting, ethics violations and nepotism.” He declined to comment further.

Wilson did not address the reason for Azarigian’s dismissal.

Councilwoman Atkins says the news of Thompson’s suspension was unexpected.

“We are in total shock,” she says.

The town’s finances have been audited on a regular basis and there has never been any problem with management of funds, she says. In the past, everything has been done above board, she says, but Wilson is keeping the matters to himself and the rest of the council doesn’t know what’s going on.

“He’s running the town like a fiefdom,” Atkins says.

Judge Cooper’s order could spell out who can do what in Chapin, which, unlike West Columbia, does have a strong-mayor type of government.
West Columbia could also have a strong-mayor type of government if Mayor Owens can convince voters that it is needed.

In an “open letter to the citizens of West Columbia” sent to the local media (see page 6), Owens says he has looked at all of the alternatives to remedy his situation and determined that a referendum vote would reflect the will of the people.

“This tyranny of the majority has replaced the judgment of the voters of West Columbia and these five council members are betting that these same voters will forget these issues by the time of their re-election,” Owens writes.

In a strong-mayor type of government, the mayor is chief administrative officer and has the right to hire and fire, according to Dennis Lambries from the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina. But Lambries says the council retains the authority to “set policies and procedures,” which could include setting agenda items.

Disagreements normally can be settled without seeking legal remedies, which indicate a governing body is dysfunctional, Lambries says.

Reba Campbell, deputy executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, says the problems facing Chapin and West Columbia “are a rare occurrence” in South Carolina’s municipalities.

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