June 14, 2017 11:08:28 AM
The Oktibbeha County Democratic Party's municipal election committee unanimously affirmed Mayor-elect Lynn Spruill's May 16 runoff victory Tuesday after opponent Johnny Moore's attorney argued the party no longer has jurisdiction over the Moore-requested challenge since the campaign filed a new petition in circuit court.
Spruill, who held a six-vote lead after absentees and affidavits were processed last month, will be sworn into office in July unless a judge's ruling to count contested ballots changes the results or a new election is ordered.
Moore's attorney William Starks declined to ask the municipal election committee to open ballot boxes to help substantiate his claims of election inconsistences as such an action would require a court order.
Starks, however, did argue a contract between the party and city to hold the election was invalid because of an improper signature and Starkville breached the agreement by using paper ballots instead of machines in the runoff. Spruill's co-counsel Jim Mozingo countered those claims by saying Moore, who is also an attorney, only objected to how the election was held and to the contract's validity after the runoff went in Spruill's favor.
While Starks declined to pursue other claims -- election commissioners improperly rejected at least nine affidavits, while more than 60 absentee ballots have issues; numerous ballots contained improper and illegal marks; and the numbers of signatures in voter receipt and poll books from certain precincts did not match the number ballots cast -- Mozingo said Spruill was shorted votes in Ward 3 due to counting issues and other balloting issues, if reversed or resolved, would not change the outcome of the primary.
"The Moore campaign had a chance to present anything it wanted to and decided not to go forward with evidence," Mozingo said after the hearing. "We were prepared to go forward with further evidence of why Spruill won, but there was no need when Moore chose not to go forward."
Starks also took issue with alleged social media posts and public comments made by the Democratic Party's city election committee chair Patti Drapala, saying the party executive referred to Moore as "the opposition" outside City Hall after a previous meeting and said Moore was conducting "usual Republican B.S.," tactics.
Starks asked Drapala to recuse herself from the meeting, but Drapala said she could officiate Tuesday's hearing in an unbiased manner and alongside five other voting members of the committee.
"She's certainly made it known she is in favor of (Spruill). She's driving the ship as chairman, so I can't help but to think that other committee members are influenced by that," Starks said. "(Tuesday's meeting was) an exercise in futility (since Moore's petition for judicial review could nullify the committee's actions)."
Drapala said she "in no way, shape or form" attempted to sway anyone's opinion on the matter and even featured a "Moore for mayor" yard sign among other political messages in her own yard.
She also said she was suspicious of Moore's political leanings before Tuesday's hearing, as Moore had been seen taking advice from former members and advisors of the Oktibbeha County Republican Party.
"That's their choice, of course, but it really doesn't look good. It arouses suspicion in the eyes of the Democratic Party," she said. "I was prepared to hear whatever specific or compelling evidence Mr. Moore might have had about these irregularities he claimed. They were generalities, but I tried repeatedly to give him room to introduce specifics about the case. I was sitting there waiting for it, because whatever I felt personally, I felt like I owed it to the public to put that to the side so we could hear the facts. There were no specifics presented to compel us to go into the ballot boxes."
Both campaigns will now wait on the state to name a special circuit court judge to the petition. That judge is expected to come from outside the 16th Circuit Court District.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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