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Ward I candidates drop out of Oxford elections following Mississippi AG opinion

Oxford’s 2021 municipal elections got a little clearer on Monday, but still remain muddy thanks to an opinion issued by Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch last week.

The Lafayette County Democratic Executive Committee, members of the Municipal Election Commission, Lafayette County GOP chair MeMe Mullen and Oxford city clerk Ashley Atkinson met on Monday to discuss and certify the candidates for this summer’s municipal elections.

During the meeting, all of the Democratic candidates who are running in primaries this spring were certified by the Democratic Executive Committee. The only Democratic candidate who was not certified during Monday’s meeting was Afton Thomas, who is challenging incumbent Mark Huelse for the Ward II alderman seat.

Thomas’s certification is decided by the Municipal Election commission, which according to Lafayette County Democrat chair Cristen Hemmins had not met as of Monday afternoon to discuss Thomas’ certification, and other candidates not in an April 6 primary, but were planning to do so via Zoom at an unspecified time.

On Feb. 3, Fitch issued an opinion regarding the requirements candidates must meet to qualify for municipal elections, which contradicts the interpretation of many municipalities, city clerk offices and candidates themselves. The deadline to file and qualify for municipal elections in Mississippi was two days later, on Feb. 5.

Fitch’s opinion reads: “Candidates for municipal ward office, in a municipality with a population of 1,000 or more, according to the latest federal decennial census, must have been a resident of the ward they seek to serve for a minimum of two years prior to the date of election.”

Hemmins told the EAGLE on Monday that the Lafayette County Democrats Executive Committee strongly disagrees with Fitch’s opinion and with the timing of it being issued.

“Lafayette County Dems have multiple attorneys and a political science professor on our Executive Committee, and we believe that the AG’s opinion is wrong, and damages the democratic process in two ways,” Hemmins said in a statement. “First, in the timing of the opinion, mere days before filing deadline, and secondly, because it makes it harder for young people and/or less affluent people to run for office.”

Due to Fitch’s opinion, two candidates running for the Ward I alderman seat have dropped out of the race since Feb 5. Harry A. Alexander, an Oxford realtor, announced on his Facebook page on Friday morning he would be bowing out of the race due to not living in Ward I for two complete years, because he was building a new home in the Savannah Square neighborhood.

“Although we have lived in Ward I since 1985, there was a period of time within the last 2 years that we did not live on Thomas Street between 2019 and 2020,” Alexander’s post read. “The three-month window leaves a gap of no residence or address in the ward for a period of time while we lived on a property we own in the county. Although encouraged to stay in the race by several elected officials and challenge the ruling, I believe I would leave Ward I citizens in an awkward situation.”

Erin Smith, the executive director for Lafayette County CASA, announced on Monday her intentions to step out of this year’s election also, citing Fitch’s opinion.

Smith moved from Ward III to Ward I in October of last year, which met the residency requirements as they were interpreted by Mississippi’s Secretary of State’s office at the time. The understanding, prior to Fitch’s opinion last week, was that candidates must live in the municipality for a full two years before qualifying.

“This opinion creates a lot of frustration and disappointment for many candidates, including myself, as this opinion was announced only a few days before the qualifying deadline of February 5th,” Smith wrote in a Facebook post on Monday. “Given the timeline, it is simply inexcusable on behalf of the Attorney General’s office.

“With all that being said. I have decided I must remove my name from running for Alderman. I have not taken this lightly and I have looked at it from all possible perspectives. I have felt so much support from so many of you in the last month, truly humbled by the support, and that is what makes this decision so difficult.”

Due to Alexander stepping down, incumbent Rick Addy changed course from his decision to not seek re-election for the Ward I seat to qualifying on Friday afternoon to seek another term.

With two candidates bowing out, Addy is still being challenged by Billy Crews in the Democratic primary. Whoever wins the primary will run in the June 8 general election unopposed, as there were not any candidates from other political parties to qualify in the Ward I race.

A full list of the candidates in this year’s municipal elections can be viewed below:

Mayor —

Robyn Tannehill (I)

Brandon Pettis (I)

Kyle Davis (R)

 

Ward I —

Rick Addy (D)

Billy Crews (D)

 

Ward II —

Mark Huelse (R)

Afton Thomas (D)

 

Ward III —

D. Ryan Grover (D)

Brian Hyneman (D)

Alexandria White (D)

L. McQueen Miscamble (R)

 

Ward IV —

Kesha Howell Atkinson (D)

 

Ward V —

Preston Taylor (D)

Justin Boyd (D)

Tracey L. Williams (D)

Barney Chadwick (R)

 

Ward VI —

Jason Bailey (R)

Migueel Centellas (D)

 

At-Large —

John Morgan (I)

Linda Porter Bishop (D)