Como Mayor Race

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Judge set to rule on Como mayor’s race

By David Howell
After a day of testimony in Circuit Court last Friday in Sardis, a judge is set to rule on whether Como Mayor Azria Lewers will serve the remaining 13 months in his term.

Lewers was certified as the winner of the May 17, 2005, mayoral race by the Como Democratic Executive Committee, receiving eight more votes than his opponent, Judy Sumner.

The following month, on June 23, 2005, Sumner filed a petition for judicial review against the Como Democratic Executive Committee alleging that she received more votes in both the primary election on May 3 and runoff election on May 17.

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After a series of delays and even a ruling in the Mississippi Supreme Court, Sumner’s attorneys were able to argue their case before Chancery Judge Kenneth Burns on Friday, May 9.

Burns was appointed to hear the case by the state’s highest court. Although contested in Circuit Court, state law allows a Circuit or Chancery Judge to preside.

“I have had the fortune or misfortune of hearing a number of these cases,” the no-nonsense judge told the spectators and participants in the courtroom as the trial began.

The trial began with testimony as Sumner’s attorneys, Steven Pittman and Gerald Chatham went to work. Their witnesses, who testified in court included Judy Gravatt, Mike Sumner, Dee Ruhl, Josephine Cleveland, Clark Gregory, Panola County Circuit Clerk Joe Reid and former Como City Clerk Nedra Dandridge.

Ironically, no members of the Como Democratic Executive Committee, whose actions were under question in the trial, attended. Members of this committee in 2005 include Clifton Davis Jr., Josephine Birge, Dede Newman, Arilla Kerney and Etta P. Gale.

At the heart of the matter were 12 absentee votes counted on May 24 by the Como Democratic Executive Committee. Gravatt, Ruhl, Mike Sumner and Cleveland each testified these previously rejected ballots were opened  and counted during a chaotic scene at City Hall on May 24 in the election certification process.

 With an estimated 95 total absentee ballots cast during the election, 19 were rejected unanimously by seven pollworkers the night of the election, according to testimony by Ruhl.

The 19 rejected ballots were placed in an envelope sealed with duct tape, according to testimony by Gregory.

On May 24, the sealed envelope was opened and members of the Como Democratic Executive Committee counted 12 of the 19 ballots, all of which went for Lewers, giving him an eight-vote victory.

Other testimony came from Dandridge, who was serving as Como’s city clerk during the election. She testified the boxes containing the regular and absentee ballots were secured in her office on the night of May 17. She testified the ballots remained secured in her office until May 24, when the election was certified.

In closing arguments, attorneys Pittman and Chatham argued the Como Democratic Committee did not have the authority to count the previously rejected absentee votes.

Judge Burns asked each party to submit a written brief of the hearing by Friday, May 16, and he would rule “promptly.”