SORRENTO — Fern Barnett, a 71-year-old great-grandmother, is running to be the next chief of police Nov. 4, and in doing so, has likely prevented the quick end to the Police Department that town officials have been building momentum toward for more than a year.
Barnett, who recently retired as assistant town and Police Department clerk, has no formal law enforcement training. She qualified Wednesday to run for the remaining term of former Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr.
Barnett’s candidacy puts a widely expected twist on a town proposition also on the ballot Nov. 4: Town voters will be asked whether they should abolish both the position of the elected police chief and the Police Department.
The measure was brought forward amid turmoil in the Police Department and the resignation and conviction of Theriot in February for lying to an FBI officer.
Barnett’s candidacy means Sorrento voters will either have a new chief selected — if she is unopposed — or will be asked Nov. 4 to elect a chief, and at the same time decide whether to abolish the chief’s position and the department.
State Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, sponsored the legislation during the 2014 session that set the election.
The prevailing view among town officials and Amedee has been that if a chief is elected to fill Theriot’s term, and voters also abolish the position, the elected chief will serve out the remainder of Theriot’s term before the chief’s position goes away. Theriot’s term ends June 30, 2017.
Key language in that legislation, Act 605, says that if voters approve abolishing the office, “the office shall be abolished upon the end of the term of the chief of police in office at the time or when a vacancy occurs in the office, whichever occurs first.”
But Meg Casper, spokeswoman for Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, said that it is likely an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office would have to be sought to clarify the issue.
“It’s not clear cut,” she said.
Facing a series of suits over officers’ actions and a department lacking insurance to put officers on the streets, Mayor Mike Lambert and several on the council have been pushing to put an end to the department and its chief and have the Sheriff’s Office take over police protection permanently.
Lambert, a former sheriff’s deputy, made campaign promises early last year when he was running for mayor to have the Sheriff’s Office take over.
The Sheriff’s Office is already providing police protection after the council dismantled the Police Department. It stopped funding the department July 31 and the town’s last police officer, Assistant Chief Ricky Smith who was working without pay, was terminated Tuesday.
Barnett, a Democrat, said she believes the majority of Sorrento’s 1,500 residents want to keep the department. She said she has had a lot of encouragement about running and believes having a Police Department is important for Sorrento’s identity as its own community.
“I mean if you get rid of the Police Department, you’re going backward, not moving forward,” she said.
Barnett, who is petite and stands about 5-feet tall, said that if elected, she does not plan to patrol the streets.
“I probably couldn’t chase anyone down and tackle them now,” Barnett said, but she added that she sees the job as an administrative one.
In the early 1980s, Barnett served one term as town alderwoman and for many years was involved as volunteer in the town’s signature but now defunct Boucherie Festival.
She said she is hopeful that, if elected and if she gets cooperation from Lambert and the Town Council, she can have the department back on its feet and eventually hire new officers until a new chief can take over.
Barnett said she has heard at least two other names as possible candidates for chief but declined to provide them.
Lambert said Wednesday that he was trying to find someone to run against Barnett. Qualifying ends Friday.
“I wish her all the luck in the world,” Lambert said of Barnett.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.