Year In Review

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A year in politics: ballots, beer, and a widow says ‘no thanks’

By Billy Davis

The death of a Panola County sheriff, and the coming election it set up, were among the biggest political news of 2009.

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Municipal elections in May and June, and a state investigation of a supervisors election, also created political news during the year.

On September 27, Panolians were dumbstruck at the news that Hugh “Shot” Bright had taken his own life at a home on College Street.

Bright, who was 50, had risen from a county jailer to jail administrator when he was elected sheriff in 2005 in a special election. (See related story, page A1).

As 2009 was coming to an end, names were being tossed around as possible sheriff’s candidates in the coming special election, which is set for November 2010.

On Christmas Eve, Panolian readers learned the first name: Phillip “Phil” Herron announced in the newspaper he was throwing his hat in the ring.  

Still unknown, as the year ends, is whether interim sheriff Otis Griffin will seek the office.

Griffin was serving as chief deputy when he was appointed sheriff in October following a 3-2 vote by the Panola County Board of Supervisors.

Griffin’s appointment didn’t happen without controversy. Nine days after Bright’s death, supervisors witnessed an open push from Griffin supporters who expected to see him appointed sheriff at the county meeting. But supervisors pushed back, telling a grumbling crowd they had not decided what to do.

In fact, behind the scenes supervisors were attempting to depoliticize the appointment by seeking an outsider who would pledge not to seek the public office. That plan failed, however, and Griffin was appointed sheriff on October 12.  

Bright’s death also raised a long-standing political issue after his widow, Mary Nell Bright, turned down the appointment, which is traditionally offered to the widow of an elected official.

In a letter she read to supervisors, Mrs. Bright said the late sheriff disliked the “widow appointment,” calling it “antiquated” and that it had “outlived its usefulness.”

“I cannot in good conscience accept a check for something I’m not qualified for,” she said, reading from a prepared statement.

As the year winds down, the Mississippi Attorney General is presently investigating election fraud following the special election in November for District 2 county supervisor.

The investigation comes after a demand for action by William Pride, the unsuccessful challenger to incumbent Supervisor Vernice Avant. She defeated Pride in a November 24 runoff.

During the runoff, Pride’s poll watchers recorded questionable activity at the polls and his campaign photographed fresh gravel on driveway entrances, reportedly dumped and spread shortly before Election Day.  

The state’s investigation is looking at an election commissioner, Julius Harris, who was recorded on an undercover video with what appeared to be absentee ballot envelopes in his possession.  

The Panolian reported in past days that an attorney general investigator had met with the county election commission on December 16. She asked for materials relating to the names of 15 people who said their ballots were completed by the election commissioner.

Election commissioners then released those absentee materials for the investigator.

Other political news of the year included:

•Municipal elections in Batesville ended with two incumbent aldermen defeated at the polls.

Ward 4 challenger Eddie Nabors defeated longtime Alderman Bobbie Jean Pounders, and Ted Stewart defeated two-term incumbent Rufus Manley in a Ward 2 primary.

The Batesville elections also produced an overlooked factoid of 2009: two Republicans now sit as aldermen on the city board. Ward 1 Alderman Bill Dugger switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP, and Nabors ran and won under the Republican banner.

•In Crenshaw, voters there ousted first-term mayor Sylvester Reed and returned former mayor Oscar Barlow to town hall.

Crenshaw voters also elected two new aldermen, Wardell Reed and Ronnie Perry.

•In Sardis, voters replaced only one alderman during the May municipal elections. Mayor Alvis “Rusty” Dye and aldermen Joseph “JoJo” Still, Rivers McArthur, Mike Wilson and Roy Scallorn all won another term. Rufus Smith was defeated by Clarence “Boo Boo” Jones.

As the year comes to a close, the hottest political topic has been legalization of beer sales on Sunday, something the City of Batesville allowed in hopes of generating more tax revenue.

“I’m not for it or against it, but I think it is something we need to make a decision on one way or the other,” Dye has said at board meetings during the year.

•In Como, voters delivered a resounding endorsement to Mayor Judy Sumner in the May municipal primary election. Sumner easily turned back challengers Andrew Cook and Mack Taylor to win re-election without a runoff.

All incumbent aldermen in Como also won re-election. Clark Gregory and Everette Hill also won in the May primary.

In the June 2 general election, Forster Ruhl, running as in independent, kept his alderman-at-large seat against a challenge from Democratic primary winner John Walton.

Ruby Higgenbottom also kept her post as alderman, defeating independent challenger Margaret Porter Wilbourne in the general election.

Alderman Bill Mitchell was not challenged for his post in the 2009 municipal election.