The Sorrento Town Council is closer to entering into a long-term contract with the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office after deciding for a second time not to pay newly elected Police Chief Fern Barnett the salary she claims she is entitled to under state law.
Mayor Mike Lambert told the council on Tuesday that he hoped the town attorney could examine the $353,832 annual contract offered by Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley for round-the-clock police protection in time to place the proposed contract on the Dec. 2 meeting agenda.
Wiley reiterated Tuesday that if the town entered into the contract, he would be the “exclusive” law enforcement provider in Sorrento, despite Barnett’s position as a police chief. Barnett is largely a police chief in name only, with no officers to command.
While not expressly calling for Barnett’s resignation, Wiley said Tuesday that he experiences “great taxpayer and citizen grief” to know that Barnett “sits in her office and gets paid to do nothing.”
Calling Sorrento a “very quiet and peaceful town” with mostly “Mayberry-type” police calls, Wiley told council members and residents attending the meeting that he wanted to establish between residents and sheriff’s deputies a “trusting relationship with approachable people.”
On Nov. 4, Sorrento residents voted 65 percent to 35 percent to abolish the Police Department and the elected position of chief after years of mistrust, unseemly behavior and lawsuits against the department itself. Legal settlements have left the department unable to procure insurance.
But Barnett, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting due to illness, became police chief in October when two other candidates running against her dropped out of the race. That meant the voters’ move to abolish the department won’t go into effect until she is out of office.
Barnett is filling the term of former Police Chief Earl Theriot, who resigned in February as part of a plea agreement to a charge of lying to an FBI agent over “inappropriate sexual contact” with a woman he picked up while on duty. That term expires June 30, 2017.
If Barnett, 71, chooses to resign, the chief of police position would cease to exist.
Barnett has previously told the Town Council that she is unsure when or if she will make a decision about leaving office. But Town Attorney Matthew Percy said Barnett retained a lawyer who has requested the town pay her salary immediately or be forced to through a court-issued writ of mandamus.
Calling the contract he is offering the town “very advantageous,” Wiley also said it could give him “pause” if Barnett also were to receive a salary out of the town’s police budget.
Council members Patti Poche, Marvin Martin, Wanda Bourgeois and Don Schexnaydre unanimously voted not to pay the new chief the $37,810 annual salary that Theriot earned.
At the last Town Council meeting, a motion by Councilman Randy Anny to pay Barnett her salary failed due to lack of a second.
Under the Lawrason Act, the state law governing municipalities like Sorrento, town councils cannot decrease an elected official’s compensation during his or her term.
But Schexnaydre said Barnett, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting due to illness, performs none of the police chief requirements dictated by state law, including a general responsibility for law enforcement or tax collection.
Instead, the Sheriff’s Office is paid $36 per hour for police protection.
“Our chief of police does nothing,” Schexnaydre said.
Council members also unanimously decided not to pay Barnett for the hourly work she claims she performed as town planning and zoning secretary.
Lambert said the town has paid Barnett $15 per planning and zoning meeting, as town ordinance requires.
But any hourly work from home Barnett said she performs is impossible to prove, Lambert said.
The Town Council then unanimously approved removing Barnett from her appointed position as planning and zoning secretary and appointed Edwin Pezant to the position.