Lots of monumental events have both devastated and revitalized the Pine Belt area in more ways than one. Two of the most monumental events of 2013 were the EF-4 tornado that ripped through in February; next, the Hattiesburg Mayoral Election controversies that continue to effect the city.
The voices of Precious Martin, Brandon Jones, Malcom Jones, and other attorneys resonated throughout Pine Belt living rooms as Seven on Your Side covered the election trial.
After the June fourth mayoral elections, Mayor Johnny DuPree beat opponent Dave Ware by 37 votes, but before the mayor was announced "winner," there had been controversy surrounding the legitimacy of certain ballots, the front door and vault to city hall containing ballots had been left unlocked, and concern was raised about who was eligible to vote in certain areas.
That did not stop DuPree from being declared as winner.
On June 24, Dave Ware filed an election challenge, asking the courts to declare him as the winner.
On June 27, specially appointed Judge William Coleman was appointed to hear the election challenge trial, set for July 23. The ultimate decision as to who got the most votes would be decided by a jury.
The trial was concentrated on Ware's argument that more than 300 absentee ballots cast in the June fourth election were not properly signed. When the Ware team thought they proved their case, the DuPree team got their go, saying their case was solid.
After a weeklong trial, a photographer with The Hattiesburg American captured the verdict on camera that declared Ware the winner. When Judge Coleman polled the jurors, the vote was 8-4. After the jurors were again polled, numbers did not add up. That's when Coleman declared a mistrial.
The city was in limbo for two months before the judge ordered a special election. The ruling wasn't what DuPree or Ware hoped for; both hit the campaign trail. Two election commissioners resigned in the midst of this, sparking new controversy. DuPree wanted to appoint new members to oversee the special election, but his council members wanted to nominate who they saw fit.
The catalyst was during a council meeting where members were to come to an agreement about new commissioners. Councilwoman Deborah Delgado said the disagreement on commissioners was race-based. Some council members fervently disagreed.
"Pee on my foot and tell me it's raining," Delgado exclaimed at the meeting.
"It's rainin'," Councilman, Ward 3, Carter Carroll replied.
A clean slate of commissioners were eventually chosen to oversee the special election. The Secretary of State and observers went to monitor the special election; yet discrepancies continued to surface.
The Rowan precinct is reputed for being the last box to return after municipal elections. When it finally arrived five hours after the other boxes, Ware's lead went from 1,100 votes to 32. The Rowan box was returned unsealed. State statute says ballot boxes must be locked and sealed at the precinct. The Rowan ballots were counted anyway.
On Friday, September 27, protestors flooded Hattiesburg City Hall. Some, to argue the unsealed Rowan box, others to argue its legitimacy.
Johnny DuPree topped out with a total of 7,512 votes, and Dave Ware with 7,305.
After all absentee and affidavit ballots were counted, DuPree won by 217 votes.
Later that day, he stood on the front steps of city hall, surrounded by his family and supporters.
"I thank my family. Y'all don't know what my wife and family went through and I thank them. I thank you all for supporting my family. Thank you for letting me be your mayor," he said as supporters cheered.