Spruill remains mayor after judge rules on election contest

Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill following the decision by Judge Barry Ford (Photo by Mary Rumore, SDN)

Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill following the decision by Judge Barry Ford (Photo by Mary Rumore, SDN)

By: 
Ryan Phillips
SDN Editor

Friday marked 382 days since Mayor Lynn Spruill was sworn into the city’s highest office, and she will remain in the position after a judge ruled in her favor as the winner of last year’s primary runoff for mayor against challenger Johnny Moore. 

While a final tally for the election results was not given, Spruill’s legal counsel, attorney Jim Mozingo, explained that Judge Barry Ford did subtract one vote from the tally, bringing Spruill’s lead to five votes instead of six. 

“It was a five-vote lead, but no matter how the rest of the ballots that (Ford) would open or check would come out, it wouldn’t matter so we aren’t going to going to go through bothering opening those because it’s a zero-sum game,” Mozingo said. 

Spruill was originally certified as the winner by six votes leading up to the decision by Judge Ford, who was appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court last year to oversee the case. 

With the election contest looming, Spruill was sworn in as the city’s first female mayor on July 3, 2017. 

Moore’s legal counsel, Columbus attorney William Starks, said they were disappointed with the outcome and still left with questions after Judge Ford made his final ruling Friday morning. 

“We put on a case where there are at least 10 ballots that were validly cast in our opinion that should have been counted,” he said. “We had election commissioners testify at trial that they should have been and they made mistakes on them. Then the judge says they didn’t do anything wrong.” 

Starks then said Judge Ford made the comment that he would count one of the ballots in question by Moore’s team, but reversed course without explaining the rationale behind not accepting the ballots. 

“So the lack of explanation on each ballot and why it should not have counted was disappointing and I thought the judge should have gone through each of those and explained why it was not a valid ballot,” Starks said. “It was basically ‘the election commissioners did their job’ and they admitted on the stand they didn’t, we disagree with that.” 

Starks then said Moore will consider the possibility of an appeal to the state Supreme Court following the decision. He will have 30 days to file an appeal once the order is entered in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court. 

 

THE DECISION 

Judge Ford first addressed the eight affidavit ballots in question by Moore’s team. However, prior to announcing how he would rule on the ballots, he addressed the validity of the electoral process as it relates to the election commissioners, who have been questioned throughout the election contest. 

“The court finds there is not a scintilla of any evidence of fraud or wrongdoing that occurred in the election or the voting process in this election,” Ford said. “The court finds that the (Democratic Executive Committee) and the election commission performed as they should have and as they were directed by statute.” 

Moore’s team challenged the eight affidavit ballots that were rejected by the election commissioners, saying they should be opened, counted and accepted. 

Judge Ford had previously said from the bench that he would open an affidavit ballot cast by David Alexander Moore, however the ballot remained sealed on Friday and Judge Ford said the court would not open or count the ballot, along with the seven other affidavits. 

Each of these eight affidavit ballots are currently in evidence and have not been opened, however the court noted during the course of testimony that the affidavit ballot of David Moore would be opened. 

Judge Ford then cited Mississippi Code § 23-15-573, saying the filing of an affidavit under that statute is a condition preceding to the permission to vote. 

“The making of the proper affidavit in writing is mandatory and not discretionary,” Judge Ford said from the bench on Friday. “After considering the statutory case law and the testimony, the court does at this time reject the eight affidavit ballots and the court in rejecting the 8 affidavit ballots, also reverses its prior decision to open and count the affidavit of David. A. Moore.” 

Talk from the bench then moved to allegations in Ward 1, with a ballot marked “none of the above,” initially counted toward the final tally for Spruill. 

That vote was removed by Judge Ford, bringing Spruill’s margin of victory to five votes. 

Judge Ford then addressed an allegation that two absentee ballots should have been opened and counted. The Starkville Daily News previously reported each team had contested one absentee each, however, Judge Ford opted not to open the ballots or consider them because it would have no impact on the outcome of the election, even if both votes were cast for Moore. 

“In order to make a determination in the outcome of this case, it is not necessary that the votes be opened by this court,” Judge Ford said. “The court is of the opinion that a five-vote victory by Miss Spruill, even assuming best case scenario that both voted for Moore, if that in fact happens, that would still give Miss Spruill a three-vote victory.” 

As for the other 52 absentee ballots questioned by the Moore camp, only one was rejected. 

The rejected ballot came from Ward 2, with Judge Ford saying the ballot had no attesting signature across the flap. 

“That ballot will be rejected,” Ford said. “Assuming that ballot was cast for Miss Spruill, that number will be deducted from the tally, she still wins.” 

He then asked all four election commissioners present if they agreed with the finding of facts of the court, to which all four agreed. 

WHAT’S NEXT? 

Spruill said despite the nerves and excitement surrounding the election contest, she has stayed focused on being the mayor and keeping the city’s business at the front of her mind. 

“Every day has been a day to go to work,” she said after the ruling. “It hasn’t been anything in particular, I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing things, so I was not focused on this. I let my lawyers focus on this and I’ve been focusing on city business so that’s what I’ll keep on doing.” 

She then thanked all of the support she has received during the past year since she was sworn in amid the election challenge by Moore. 

“(The support has) been enormous and I have been incredibly honored by that, because I had no expectation,” she said. “I have had a whole lot of people who have been incredibly supportive and it’s been very gratifying. I think we’ve been out in the community and people who have gotten engaged and that’s as much as anything important to me that people are engaged and want to be a part of what’s going on, so that matters.”

While Moore did not make himself available for comment following the ruling, Starks echoed Spruill saying they were grateful for the people who were in their corner from the beginning. 

“I want them to know we appreciate their support and their assistance through the process,” Starks said. “My client and myself have been fueled by that support and we’re just disappointed that the outcome wasn’t one that they wanted and that what we think was just in this case.” 

Despite both candidates running on the Democratic ticket last May, tensions flared between the Oktibbeha County Democratic Executive Committee and Moore, when Moore filed an initial petition in Oktibehha County Circuit Court to challenge the election results, as opposed to beginning the process in front of the committee. 

Patti Drapala, who chairs the committee, said its members feel vindicated by the ruling to uphold the committee’s decision to certify Spruill as the winner. 

“We made every effort to hold a fair Democratic Primary and Primary runoff,” she said. “We also feel we worked hard to accommodate Mr. Moore’s request for a fair and impartial hearing after the runoff. He did not present any evidence of fraud or malfeasance. Therefore, we upheld the results of the runoff and declared Ms. Spruill as the clear winner. We are proud to have a Democrat as our mayor and we are confident she will continue to move Starkville forward.”

When asked if Moore would file an appeal with the state Supreme Court, Starks said they will have to discuss the matter before moving one way or the other. 

“An appeal’s an expensive process, so we have to weigh those things … I think we certainly have grounds for an appeal based on the case we presented and I believe we would be victorious on an appeal,” Starks said. “But I can’t speak for my client at this point. I have to consult with him.”  

Mozingo, when asked if he thought Moore would appeal Judge Ford’s decision, said they will just play it by ear for the time being. 

“If they do, we will take it from there and if they don’t we will continue doing what we have been doing for the last year or so since Lynn got elected,” Mozingo said. “She will just keep being mayor and try to do the best job she can for the city of Starkville.” 

 

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