Oktibbeha County Emergency Management Agency’s long-serving deputy director, Kristen Campanella, will now lead the agency she joined 16 years ago.
Supervisors declined to begin a process advertising the vacancy created when OCEMA Director Shank Phelps retired July 1, instead opting to promote Campanella Monday with a unanimous vote.
Her salary was set at the same level Phelps earned. That figure was not readily available Monday, but it is believed Phelps earned about $60,000 annually.
Campanella joined OCEMA in 2001, working up the ranks from dispatcher to deputy director. She was unofficially serving as the department’s interim leader after Phelps’ departure.
“I am very thankful for the opportunity, and I appreciate the vote of confidence given by the board of supervisors,” she said. “I have a great staff that works here, and I know the transition will be easy because of them. You’re only as good as the people around you, so I know this will be a seamless change.”
District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer called Campanella’s promotion “her big debut” for Oktibbeha County.
“Sometimes in life, you have to be patient and things will then work out for you. It gives me comfort to know she’s more than capable of handling the position,” he said. “I’m excited for her and glad she has the opportunity. I wish her well, and we will do what we can as a board to support her and make her as effective as possible. She’s serving the same people we serve, so we have to make sure she’s properly funded and has access to the right tools to succeed.”
The previous board of supervisors passed over Campanella in 2015 and selected Phelps, who had worked with the Oktibbeha County Sheriff’s Department for about two decades, to succeed retiring OCEMA Director Jim Britt.
That action prompted Campanella to file a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the county in which she alleged supervisors did not hire her because she is a woman and that Britt “entertains prejudice against females” and swayed the board to pick Phelps as his replacement.
Campanella’s attorney, Jim Waide of Tupelo, confirmed the county and Campanella recently agreed in principle to settle the case. Citing confidentiality agreements, Waide would not comment on the specifics of the agreement.
Trainer, who was the lone 2015 vote against Phelps’ hiring, said the county moved forward with Campanella’s promotion instead of launching a formal search because he believed the strongest candidate was already identified.
“To open that back up and go back through the process is cumbersome and tiring,” Trainer said. “Why go through the extra effort and energy when you’re probably not going to find anymore more qualified than she is? She has the same credentials as she had before (Phelps’ hire). Shank was very good as far as public relations were concerned, and I guess that’s the reason why some people think he got the job or she didn’t.”
Phelps’ wife appointed constable
In other business, Phelps’ wife Mitzi will fill her husband’s vacated District 1 constable post.
To draw state retirement after serving Oktibbeha County for more than 25 years, Phelps was forced to leave both his OCEMA job and his elected constable position.
Mitzi Phelps, who has spent time serving papers with her husband since he was first elected in 2011, is the second spouse to be appointed to her husband’s constable position this decade.
Ruby Shurden, the widow of former District 1 Constable Jimmy Shurden, succeeded her husband in 2011 after he died following a months-long battle with cancer. Jimmy Shurden previously served 28 years as constable.
“I’m so excited the board would go forward and appoint me to the job. It’s been our afternoon journeys for a while now. I’ve put in a lot of hours with Shank, and I think it’s fun to get out into the community like that,” Mitzi Phelps said.
Shank Phelps is expected to qualify for November’s special District 1 constable race, and his wife jokingly said he might have some competition on the ballot “if I end up liking this” as much as she thinks she will.
Special elections for chancery clerk and circuit clerk, and a referendum on a potential sale of OCH Regional Medical Center, are also expected to be on November’s ballot.
Supervisors also went into executive session to discuss a personnel issue involving a road department employee and emerged with a failed attempt to fire office manager Christy Larry.
Larry took to social media last month and tweeted allusions to claims of sexual harassment from a previous candidate for Oktibbeha County’s road manager position.
Using private messages, Larry told The Dispatch last month a lawsuit had not been filed against that person with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
A copy of the county employee handbook states personnel may be fired for, among other things, “conduct (that) impairs the effectiveness of the county or brings it into public disrepute.”
Larry did not respond to private messages Monday, and a phone number for her was not immediately available.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch