West Columbia and Chapin council meetings used to be friendly community gatherings with that small-town flavor.
But today, they often involve bitter confrontations, angry comments from citizens and abrupt endings. Elected officials are suing each other right and left.
Things got so bad that citizen groups have set out to change the form of government with petition drives that will send voters back to the polls.
In West Columbia, some citizens want Mayor Joe Owens to have more power over a Council that has demoted him from his presiding position over Council. His supporters have successfully gathered petition signatures and within the next month or so will have citizens vote for a “strong mayor” type of government.
In Chapin, dissatisfied constituents of three council members want just the opposite. They complain that new Mayor Skip Wilson wants to run things on his own with no input from Council.
During his first few months in office, Wilson sought to have more control over Council’s agenda and administration but encountered opposition every step of the way.
In April, Wilson suspended Town Clerk Adrienne Thompson, alleging misuse of public money under her control.
The move angered three of the council members who insists she did nothing wrong. Council members Vivian “Bibi” Atkins, Kay Hollis and Robbie Frick called a special council meeting unattended by the mayor and voted to reinstate her.
But then the mayor filed his own suit against the council members, alleging their actions amounted to “civil misconduct.” Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper heard both sides of the arguments and ruled in favor of Wilson.
Since then, Thompson has filed two lawsuits against the mayor, alleging defamation and age discrimination.
Wilson announced this past week that Thompson has been fired. He asked the State Law Enforcement Division to conduct an investigation into the allegations against Thompson.
Wilson is seeking a mediator to help settle his differences with Council.
In West Columbia, a council majority fed up with the mayor’s blustery style stripped him of his authority to preside over meetings and put in their own council member, B.J. Unthank, as “chair” of Council.
Owens was at odds with most council members on several different issues. The problems escalated over time and became personal.
Councilman Boyd Jones filed a defamation lawsuit against Owens, contending that that he was spreading lies about him accepting bribes.
Council has called for an “audit” of recent actions taken by Owens that they say raised “procedural” questions. The town is paying $10,000 to outside attorney Robert Bolchoz to conduct the probe.
Voters will soon have their say about all of these conflicts. They can make a change, or choose to stay with a system that has worked in the past.
“I think it will pass,” Owens said of the West Columbia vote.
He said his supporters collected more than 1,600 signatures, well above the approximately 1,230 needed for the vote. Councilman Tem Miles, who has led the fight against Owens’ authority, says getting the signatures is not tantamount to winning the vote.
“I’ve said all along that he would get the signatures he needed,” Miles says.
He’s looking forward to having a dialogue with citizens about the proposed change and what it will mean for the town.
“I don’t like a system where one individual has all the say,” Miles says.
In Chapin, the signature collections have been very successful, according to Council member Kay Hollis, whose residence has been a collection point. She expects the petition to meet all the requirements and receive approval from the county for a vote.
Owens did not offer any comment on the petition, but said he would issue a statement in the next few days.
Cayce Mayor Elise Partin is well versed in the politics of Lexington County’s municipalities. She declined to take sides in the West Columbia and Chapin fights, but says her observation is that the council-manager form of government (also called weak-mayor) such as that in Cayce works best.
With a professional administrator and staff in place, the governing body will have “people in place to work on problems,” she says.
But even when there appears to be an impasse, Partin says elected officials should strive to maintain a level of respect and decorum as they conduct business.
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