SORRENTO — Fern Barnett, the great-grandmother and former town clerk who resisted town leaders’ calls for her to step down as chief of police and obey the will of voters who had abolished her job, is expected to resign Saturday in a deal brokered to end her lawsuit over $17,000 in back pay and benefits.
With $12,638 already in her pocket and a final payment pending, Barnett, 72, will end a five-month term as Sorrento’s seventh and last chief of police since the community was incorporated in September 1956.
Her imminent departure also brings a successful end to Mayor Mike Lambert’s drive to do away with the Police Department and hand over law enforcement duties in Sorrento to the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, as the city of Donaldsonville did in the mid-1980s.
The mayor’s and other town leaders’ efforts were backed by voters on Nov. 4 when they decided 65 percent to 35 percent to abolish the department and chief of police position.
“Time will tell how good of a decision it is, but as it is, at this point, it seems like it will be great decision for the town,” Lambert said Wednesday.
Lambert, a former sheriff’s deputy, said the town is already seeing improved, professional police protection with more services than the town could have afforded through its own Police Department.
“I think that it’s a bargain what we’re getting,” Lambert said. “It’s a big liability off the town of Sorrento.”
He said extra revenue has allowed the town to boost its number of public works employees from one to three and, with the help of grants, to buy new equipment, such as tractors, a road grading blade and mowers.
The Police Department was first led by heirs to Sorrento’s original homesteaders, like longtime Chief Earl Trabeaux, when original village leaders held meetings in the first mayor’s grocery store, according to the 2000 book, “The History of Sorrento.”
But in the last decade, the perception of the Police Department soured from that Mayberry reputation to being one of the reasons Sorrento was seen by some as dysfunctional government best known as a speed trap.
Lawsuits mounted over sexual harassment and other alleged officer misconduct. Police procedural errors led to dozens of cases being thrown out. Past audits noted traffic ticket fees were not being collected. Then, the department lost its liability insurance in fall 2013, and, by February 2014, longtime Chief of Police Earl Theriot Jr. resigned in a plea deal that convicted him on a federal charge of lying to an FBI agent over “inappropriate sexual contact” with a drunken woman.
Some, however, like Barnett, defended the department as a critical piece of Sorrento’s identity that could be rehabilitated with a steadying hand. Barnett won the seat by default in late October after two other candidates dropped out and, under a quirk in the law, was able to stay in office for the remainder of Theriot’s term despite the Nov. 4 public vote a few weeks later to disband the force.
Barnett, who at that point was overseeing a defunct department without insurance or officers while the Sheriff’s Office patrolled the town, resisted calls to step down.
She then sued the town because the Town Council refused to pay her, claiming state law says the council had to pay her Theriot’s old salary for largely clerical work.
A Town Council-approved settlement in January led to Barnett’s payout and agreed upon the Saturday departure. Lambert had to break a 2-2 council tie to pay Barnett. Councilman Don Schexnaydre, who voted against the payout, said he still has a problem with it.
“What did we get for her $17,000 worth of work? Nothing, truthfully,” Schexnaydre said.
Barnett declined requests for interviews this week but rejected the notion that she stayed in office for the payout. She did say her last day in the office is Friday, though, under the settlement, her last day as chief is Saturday.
“Everything’s pretty much cleaned up in there,” Barnett said.
She said she has left town officials a list of things to do. She will remain the town’s planning and zoning secretary, for which she earns $15 per meeting.
The town still has to sell surplus police cars and guns, and Sheriff Jeff Wiley said he would like at least some of the department’s soon-to-be-vacant space for his deputies who now patrol Sorrento, though he has to see if town leaders agree to that.
While town officials are discussing more mundane government matters like long-range planning, dark clouds remain for Sorrento. The child porn and animal cruelty prosecution of former Mayor Wilson Longanecker Jr. is pending, and FBI agents recently seized the boat of Councilman Randy Anny as part of a still murky federal probe.
Charlotte Guedry, spokeswoman for District Attorney Ricky Babin, said the sexual assault allegations against Theriot remain under investigation. She said Babin has four years to decide whether to prosecute.
A federal lawsuit against Theriot and the town is also pending over the assault allegations and has been set for jury trial in June 2016.
It does appear, however, that any probe into a police semi-automatic rifle that Barnett found had been missing, possibly for years, and then mysteriously was returned to a bench under her home’s carport is not in the offing. Wiley and officials with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives say they are not investigating the matter.
Still, Reno Lee Jr., 51, who owns a seafood and meat market on family property along La. 22 in Sorrento, welcomed the department’s final end. He said his customers would tell him they would not come to Sorrento because of the Police Department.
“So now I’m getting people coming, you know, but I’m telling you, a lot of people came in saying they didn’t want to come to Sorrento because they didn’t want to get a ticket,” Lee said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.