Both sides prep for February trial in mayoral runoff contest

Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill (left) and mayoral challenger Johnny Moore

Both sides in the 2017 mayoral primary runoff election contest sifted through various discovery issues Friday morning during a pretrial hearing in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court.

Judge Barry Ford, who was appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court to oversee the case, presided over the hearing and heard cases being made by current Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill and former mayoral candidate Johnny Moore.

Spruill was certified as the winner of the Democratic Primary runoff by six votes in May and sworn in to officemon July 3.

The official trial date for the election contest is set for Feb. 5 in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court and Friday’s hearing allowed both sides to iron out details heading into next month’s court date.

Points of discussion during Friday’s hearing included concerns over an expert witness for the Moore camp, the number of ballots being disputed and certain election practices being called into question.


Seated behind Moore and his legal counsel William Starks was Pete Perry, who the Moore team hopes to call to testify as an expert witness once the matter goes to trial in February.

Perry, who serves as Hinds County GOP chairman, has worked as a “top-level government administrator,” in addition to working in the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush.

“He’s very knowledgeable about elections, so we generally want to get him involved,” Starks told the Starkville Daily News on Friday.

Starks told Ford during the hearing that Perry’s role would be to take the stand and for Starks to provide him with the ballot envelope to analyze.

Ford told both legal teams if Perry is to take the stand as an expert, Moore’s team must provide an opinion and a basis for the opinion to Spruill’s team.

“This is not going to be a trial by ambush,” Ford said.

Lydia Quarles, who is a part ofSpruill’s legal counsel, said Perry had indicated he had testified in 17 election contests and their team requested more details concerning each contest in order to find out what his theory of testimony is.

Spruill’s legal counsel Jim Mozingo cited one testimony given by Perry where he claimed if one absentee ballot was bad, then they all had to be thrown out. Ford instructed Moore’s team to provide Spruill’s team and the court with the opinion and basis for the opinion in order for Perry to take the stand. He set Tuesday, Jan. 16, at 5 p.m. as the deadline for submission of those supplemental materials concerning Perry’s previous case information.

Moore’s team will have until Monday, Jan. 21, to submit the proposed opinions and their basis.

“Basically, what we did today was try to round out some discovery disputes we had,” Quarles said following Friday’s hearing. “The most significant part of that has to do with expert witness testimony. Mr. Perry was identified as an expert witness and a lay witness … either an expert witness or lay witness can testify to opinions, but you have to have what the opinions are and what the basis of the opinions are, so basically that’s the things we didn’t have and we feel like we had a very successful result and that’s going to be supplemented.”


Ford made it clear on Tuesday to both legal teams he was not interested in hearing discussions concerning the presentation of signatures made by election officials.

However, that did not stop the issue from coming up.

It has been a topic of debate during the election contest that election officials are required to sign ballots with either an X or a traditional check mark.

Ford, though, said any kind of mark directly associated with a particular election official would be counted.

“If it was an O or Y or anything that indicates it was that elector’s choice for the thing, I’m going to allow that,” Ford said.

Another signature issue discussed came when Starks mentioned one election clerk didn’t put the seal on the absentee ballot envelope.

Starks argued that of the absentee ballots that were counted in the election, they were improperly processed and there was no signature across the flap of a particular envelope or a seal on the application, which is also a point of contention.

“(Spruill’s team’s) theory is, we just throw out every one these 400 or 500 absentee ballots because these 60 are bad, well I think it just shows you can’t ascertain the will of the voter when you’ve got 60 ballots that should not have been accepted that got put into the count,” Starks said.


Moore’s legal team also disputes the final count concerning the margin of victory for Spruill.

Spruill’s election victory was certified by a margin of six votes, which Moore’s team claims is actually a five-vote margin.

At this point in the hearing, Starks suggested another approach to reaching a conclusion: simply open and count the 11 ballots their team specifically mentions in its contest - nine affidavit and two absentee ballots.

In addition to the ballots in question, Starks also said their team opted to abandon six other absentee ballots it had previously considered after reviewing the ballot envelopes.

Starks posed the idea of going through each ballot and letting the court make a call on whether or not the closed ballots should be opened.

“If (Ford determines) they should be open, then we can count them and determine the winner,” Starks said. “That’s 11 ballots. We can hang our hat on that.”

Mozingo then argued that counting the ballots in question could have been done before the

Democratic Municipal Committee in June, when Moore declined to provide evidence after filing a petition for judicial review in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court.

“This goes back to my jurisdictional argument your honor,” Mozingo said. “We never even tried to do that. We had so much to talk about, now we’ve got 11 ballots.”

Spruill’s team previously disputed the jurisdiction of the special appointed judge to hear the case, which came in the form of an interlocutory appeal and recognition of stay filed with the Mississippi Supreme Court in September.

The state’s highest court ultimately denied the appeal and referred the case back to Oktibbeha County Circuit Court.

“We’re excited to finally get to a hearing on February 5 and to work to present the evidence we have regarding the election and hope that it does two things,” Starks said following the hearing. “We think it will result in showing the will of the voters and also showing how we can improve our elections in the city of Starkville to make it a better election process next time for somebody else.”