GONZALES — Sorrento Police Chief Fern Barnett leads a police force without any officers. Soon the town plans to sell off her department’s law enforcement equipment, shedding cruisers, guns and any other gadgets.
But Barnett, who took office this fall, isn’t going away. In fact, she wants to be paid, filing a lawsuit last week asking a state district judge to order the town to pay her for time on the job.
The 71-year-old great-grandmother’s election by default in the fall — she won the position after two other contenders dropped out of the Nov. 4 race to fulfill the former police chief’s term — has set off a protracted power struggle with the Sorrento Town Council.
During the same election, Sorrento voters overwhelmingly decided to scrap a Police Department beset by scandal in recent years, culminating with a federal conviction of former Chief Earl Theriot Jr. for lying to the FBI about “inappropriate sexual contact” with a drunken woman he picked up while on duty. But for the duration of Barnett’s term, set to expire on June 30, 2017, the office of police chief must continue to exist under state law.
In meeting after meeting, Town Council members have urged Barnett to step aside. In November, council members first declined a vote on paying her wages and benefits and then, in a second meeting, voted against paying her at Theriot’s old rate of pay.
Barnett’s lawsuit argues the council’s lack of action on her pay last month broke state law. She contends that John Gallagher, counsel for the Louisiana Municipal Association, told Mayor Mike Lambert that the town was required by law to pay Barnett’s salary.
“I am requesting what is owed to me at this point,” Barnett said Monday. She declined further comment on the suit or her future as chief.
Barnett’s suit points to a section of the Lawrason Act that says while a town council can increase or decrease a police chief’s salary, the council cannot reduce any elected official’s salary during the official’s current term. Theriot made $37,810 annually in salary and benefits when he was chief, though that figure excludes state supplemental pay.
“By refusing to pay Mrs. Barnett’s salary as the chief of police, an elected official, the defendants are in violation of this statute,” the lawsuit claims.
Barnett’s suit, which seeks what is known as a writ of mandamus, was filed Dec. 23 in the 23rd Judicial District and came one week after the Town Council declared the Police Department’s equipment, including the police cars and van, as surplus. The council wants to sell or exchange the equipment.
The lawsuit names Lambert, the town and the council as defendants.
Lambert said Monday he had not yet been served with the suit and could not comment.
But council members, Lambert and some residents have called for Barnett, who has no law enforcement experience, to resign, saying she is flouting the voters’ will by remaining chief. In refusing to pay her, council members have also charged she is doing no real work running a department with no insurance, which means neither she nor anyone else can patrol.
The Town Council has been contracting with the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office to provide police protection since the department lost its liability insurance more than a year ago. Insurer Risk Management Inc. declined to continue offering liability coverage due to the department’s failure to follow underwriting guidelines, a move that hamstrung officers’ ability to continue patrols or drive department vehicles.
But, in the suit, Barnett rattled off a list of activities that she said justify a paycheck. They included administrative paperwork, meeting and speaking with officials and the news media, and rewriting the department’s policies and procedures manual.
Barnett’s suit also seeks attorney’s fees and court costs from the town.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.