West Columbia Mayor Joe Owens called a news conference Thursday to again address allegations about his conduct. The meeting almost didn’t happen, however, when a City Council member joined the group.
Owens and his attorney Chip Burns had a prepared statement they said proved the Bolchoz report as “a collection of lies and distortions.”
The mayor has come under fire recently after an audit performed by Midlands attorney Robert Bolchoz alleged Owens mishandled funds, threatened city employees and held a special committee meeting among other things.
Owens released a statement denying any wrongdoing just after the report was released but called a news conference Thursday to address the issue further.
Upon seeing that Councilman Tem Miles, who has been an opponent of Owens for several months, intended on sitting in, too, Owens moved the news conference to his office in City Hall and attempted to keep Miles out. The councilman insisted on staying “on behalf of the people I represent in my district,” but Owens declined to speak until Miles left.
“The press was invited and nobody else,” Owens said.
He told members of the media he would call another meeting Friday at a private location.
Miles and Owens exchanged words as Miles left the mayor’s office.
“Enjoy this office while you have it, mayor,” Miles said.
“Enjoy your girth while you can keep it,” Owens responded.
Once Miles left the room, the door was shut and Owens started the news conference. The door appeared to be locked, and Miles had to wait for an employee with a key before he could re-enter the room.
Burns read a statement on behalf of Owens and said police reports and other city documents proved allegations made in the audit were false.
“These incidences … (have been) taken out of context,” the statement reads.
Owens specifically referenced an incident involving former Maj. Matt Edwards of the West Columbia Police Department. The report alleges Edwards had dogs “unnecessarily shot” based on interviews with more than one police officer.
Owens said police reports instead show the department had received numerous calls about the dogs and their dangerous behavior, and they were only killed when attempts to capture them were unsuccessful.
“There was no doubt Mr. Bolchoz had access to this document during his ‘investigation’,” his statement reads.
The Bolchoz report also alleges Edwards ordered another officer to “sign off on fraudulent time sheets.” Owens said Edwards actually was honoring “work credit” for a graduate training course as allowed by the department.
Burns said he is continuing to gather more evidence to dispel the other allegations.
Owens did address a video recently released from three years ago in which he confronted a person who was allegedly speeding.
“I stopped nobody. He went by my house at an inordinate rate of speed, and I went … to ask him to slow down,” Owens said.
Owens said he did what “any citizen should do” and called the police when the situation escalated. He said he did identify himself as the mayor and as a constable but was not carrying a firearm at that time.
Owens also accused Miles of holding a meeting with a quorum of council at the recent Municipal Association of South Carolina conference to discuss the petition presented by members of the public to call for a special referendum.
“At that time (the petition) was not before the city … we had not taken it up,” Miles said. “That’s not city business.”
West Columbia voters will decide Sept. 30 whether or not the city’s government should change to a mayor-council form of government. Owens said “strong mayor” is the solution to the council’s ongoing discord.
“Or next year when we vote a few people out who need to go,” he added.