John Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 8, 2009

John Howell Sr.

Como election well-run, well-watched

As if people in Como didn’t have enough to do already with planning for Thursday’s Blues Marker dedication and the anticipated attendance of Bonnie Raitt, there was the little matter of an election.

Como elections have become contentious in recent years. After the Como’s 2005 elections, two candidates successfully challenged in court the handling of the affair. The separate legal battles, both finally decided by the state’s Supreme Court, unseated two officials who had been declared winners in 2005. Alderman-at-Large Forster Ruhl finally gained the seat in 2007, two years after John Walton had been sworn in to the position. Mayor Judy Sumner replaced Azria “Bobby” Lewers in June, — with less than a year remaining before she had to run again.

Also at mid-term in July and August, 2007, Como was rocked by a series of revelations of fiscal mismanagement. First, the town’s bank accounts were frozen by the Internal Revenue Service because for almost two years, municipal employees’ withholdings had not been deposited as required nor had quarterly reports of the deposits been filed. Como’s IRS problems turned into a discovery of the tip of an iceberg of overdue bills, non-payments and debt delinquency. With each month’s meeting during late 2007 and early 2008 came revelations of new debts that aldermen had not known about before. Meetings became packed with townspeople, most of whom demanded to know how the town could fall to such arrears without elected officials — especially the mayor — being aware.

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The financial crisis reinforced in Como the awareness that the town’s fiscal integrity was linked to the integrity of its elections, setting the stage for 2009.

Tuesday was the first round. After a bumpy start Tuesday morning when poll watchers and poll workers occasionally clashed over proper procedures of voter assistance and curbside voting, the afternoon went smoothly. It helped that election observers from the Mississippi Secretary of State, the Mississippi Attorney General and the U. S. Justice Department were there to watch through the election day and into the following morning when election workers ended their day between 2 and 3 a.m. The two men from Washington returned Wednesday morning and observed for another four hours or more as the Democratic Executive Committee members, as part of their jobs to certify the election results, reviewed and then accepted or rejected the 28 affidavit ballots cast.

Como citizens are urging the return of observers from the Justice Department and from state agencies for the June 2 general election.

Election workers and committee members spent many hours Tuesday night and Wednesday, especially considering that a total of less than 600 votes were cast in the entire election. Occasionally questions were raised about the necessity of rigidly observing the tedious detail required by law or whether shortcuts would not be appropriate, especially as the day wore into a long night.

The answer, of course, is yes. Without rigidly adhering to state and federal election laws and to party rules governing, a democratic society devolves into the rule of men instead of the rule of law. We’ve fought a revolution over rule by law instead of men. We further defined it through a civil war, foreign wars and through a civil rights struggle from which we learned much. Now is not the time to forget.