Sheriff, Supervisors pot boils over

Published 1:15 am Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Board balks at hiring of deputies; moves to take jail from Phelps’ control

A long simmering feud between the Panola County Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Shane Phelps finally boiled over at the Batesville Courthouse Monday, with Board President Cole Flint taking the first steps in stripping Phelps of some of his duties in an open meeting rebuke of the Sheriff and his administration.

Later, in a nearly two-hour executive session, some of the most grievous complaints of the supervisors were settled with Phelps, reportedly sufficient enough to repair the goodwill that was lost between the board and the sheriff shortly after he first took office in January, 2020.

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Monday afternoon, one supervisor and one high-ranking official at the Sheriff’s Office – both wishing to comment off the record – confirmed the meeting was “positive” and some issues had been settled. How much compromise was reached, and how long the detente will hold is a question that only time will answer.

The room was unusually crowded for a second meeting of the month and supervisors had dealt with several contentious issues and heard from several citizens before the regular flow of the agenda reached the Sheriff’s Office items. It was then, at 56 minutes into the meeting, that Flint surprised all present by asking Phelps (who was standing in the hallway) to come into the room.

“I want to say something and I wanted you to hear me address legal counsel,” Flint said to Phelps. “I’m asking legal counsel to look into removing the sheriff as Sergeant-at-Arms of the Panola County Board of Supervisors and also look into the supervisors running the Panola County jail. If the Board of Supervisors can take it over I want to know how and what it takes.”

Following Flint’s statement, District 2 Supervisor Earl Burdette also requested that Board Attorney Gaines Baker rewrite the bylaws of the E-911 program in a way that would diminish the seats (and votes) on the board for the Sheriff’s Office and increase the number for Supervisor representation.

Removal of Phelps as Sergeant-at-Arms is mostly ceremonial and is little more than a public reprimand. Essentially, Phelps will no longer have a seat on the dias at board meetings, and the supervisors will appoint someone else to hold the position. The Sergeant-at-Arms has minimal duties – asking people to silence their cell phones and announcing the start of meetings.

Jail administration is a much larger strike against the Sheriff’s Office and will remove him from day-to-day oversight of that portion of the David Bryan Justice Complex on Hwy. 35N. Flint said the supervisors will either run the jail with the current employees or hire a third party that specializes in jail administration.

Most of the problems between Phelps and the Board of Supervisors have involved personnel over the past four years. On multiple occasions the Sheriff has informed the board of new hires, or promotions, only to have them vote against the hirings – usually 4-1 (Birge voting for) or 3-2 (Birge and sometimes Thomas voting for).

Many times Phelps has hired deputies and jailers, or given promotions, against the expressed wishes of Flint, Weaver, and Burdette.

Burdette has been a particularly harsh critic of the Sheriff, and has openly berated his personnel choices. Supervisors complain that thousands of dollars in unnecessary overtime has been accumulated by some deputies, including some part-time employees, and that vital funds for road deputies are wasted on office personnel and others who do not patrol the county.

In the past four years, Phelps has also fired several deputies for a variety of reasons, but some only after the Supervisors threatened to make some of the matters public to force their dismissals.

Deputies have wrecked vehicles not in the line of duty, failed drug screens, been caught stealing from the Sheriff’s Office by misusing county equipment – taking a county vehicle on multiple out-of-state trips that were not part of his job.

To that point, part of the consternation at Monday’s meeting was caused by Phelps’ attempt to hire again two deputies who have been fired earlier for malfeasance – one for failing a drug screen and the other for misuse of county equipment.

County Administrator Kate Victor, as is her duty, released the agenda for Monday’s meeting on Friday, Nov. 10, and under Phelps’ name was a request to fire four deputies – two of which were the ones with the drugs and theft blights.

Word spread quickly over the weekend that Phelps was trying to hire those deputies again, no doubt spurring Flint to make his announcement at the meeting.

By state law, Phelps does not have to get the board’s approval to make hires or promotions. He is only required to read their names and compensation into the minutes. Supervisors can approve or deny any other county employee except those in the Sheriff’s Office (and some county clerk positions).

In contrast, the Board of Supervisors in each Mississippi county controls the overall budget for their respective Sheriff’s Office and often use that power to reign in Sheriff’s they believe to be operating against the will of the people, per their district supervisors.

The next meeting of the board is scheduled for Monday, Dec. 4, at the Sardis Courthouse unless a special meeting is called before that date.