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Oxford election commissioner resigns days before municipal election

The Oxford Election Commission is down one commissioner less than a week before the 2021 municipal elections.

Commissioner Cathy Marshall-Smith resigned from the five-person Election Commission last week. Oxford’s city clerk, Ashley Atkinson, confirmed Smith’s resignation with the EAGLE on Wednesday.

Atkinson said Smith’s resignation was due to a conflict of interest.

With the municipal elections taking place on Tuesday, Atkinson said the Election Commission will move forward with the four other members.

“Being this close to the elections, the (Board of Aldermen) will not fill the vacancy at this time,” Atkinson said. “There are four remaining commissioners and they will go forward with the election next Tuesday.”

Speaking with the EAGLE on Wednesday, Smith explained the reason for her resignation.  Her name, along with her husband’s, had appeared on a list of hosts for a virtual campaign fundraiser for Alderman At-Large candidate Linda Porter Bishop. Due to her name appearing, Smith stated she was “encouraged” by Atkinson to resign due to a conflict of interest.

The Campaign to Elect Linda Porter Bishop issued a public apology on its Facebook page and in the EAGLE’s May 30 edition with a paid advertisement, explaining the error in listing Smith’s name.

While Smith resigned from the Election Commission, she said she now regrets her decision and wishes she had been given the opportunity to speak to the commissioners.

“I shouldn’t have resigned, but I did because I was encouraged to do by Ashley,” Smith said. “In hindsight, the the commission should have convened and I could have explained what happened, with my documentation, and that should have sufficed. But I was encouraged to resign for conflict of interest from Ashley, where there was no conflict of interest.”

Atkinson disputed Smith’s claims that she encouraged the former commissioner to resign. She told the EAGLE that she called Smith on May 25 regarding a flyer that had been circulating on social media inviting people to a virtual fundraiser for Bishop. Atkinson also stated Smith had a campaign sign in her front yard and both items were reported to her by “multiple people.”

Prior to calling Smith, Atkinson said she called the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office and spoke to lead attorney, Kyle Kirkpatrick, who offered his advice — which was she be removed from the commission if she did not resign on her own.

An opinion issued by the Mississippi Attorney General’s office on June 21, 2019,  discusses the impartiality of election officials and election commissioners, stating, “The legislature has enacted that election commissioners shall totally remove themselves from any taint or hint of suspicion of partnership…”

“I opened the conversation by telling her that I had seen the flyer and once she realized why I was calling, she spontaneously resigned from the commission,” Atkinson said. “I told her I felt that was best and thanked her for her service during the primary … I don’t feel I ‘encouraged’ her to resign, however, had she not voluntarily resigned, I was going to ask her for resignation due to the clear conflict of interest issue.”

Following their conversation on the phone, Smith emailed Atkinson and offered her resignation in writing.

Municipal election commissioners are appointed to four-year terms by the Board of Aldermen. The commissioners must be registered voters of the municipality, and the number of commissioners appointed depends on the population of the city or town. The commissioners are responsible for conducting municipal general and special elections, and if contracted, primary elections.

Tuesday’s municipal elections include Oxford’s mayoral race and the six aldermen seats. Two of the aldermen races feature two incumbents running unopposed in Ward I Aldermen Rick Addy and Ward IV Alderman Kesha Howell-Atkinson.