SORRENTO — Fern Barnett, a great-grandmother and former longtime town police clerk, is the last woman — and candidate — standing in the race to be Sorrento’s next chief of police.
Jerry P. LeBlanc, one of three candidates vying to fill the unexpired term of former Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr., withdrew Thursday from the Nov. 4 election, according to papers filed with the Louisiana Secretary of State.
“It (LeBlanc’s withdrawal) canceled the race. Fern Barnett is elected unopposed,” Meg Casper, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Tom Schedler, said Tuesday.
She said the office has already filed papers to commission Barnett as chief.
Another chief’s candidate, C.J. Martin, withdrew in late August for unspecified personal reasons.
Theriot, whose term ends June 30, 2017, resigned in February as part of a plea agreement for lying to an FBI agent over inappropriate sexual contact with a heavily intoxicated woman he gave a ride to while he was on duty. He was sentenced to 24 months’ probation and fined $2,500.
Theriot has been sued in federal court over the sex allegations that the woman claims constituted sexual assault. Theriot says his interaction with the woman was consensual. District Attorney Ricky Babin has not made a decision on whether to charge Theriot in state court.
It was not clear Tuesday if and when Barnett could be sworn in. Barnett doesn’t even have her sidearm.
“Not yet, but my grandson said he’d buy me one … and I can shoot it,” Barnett said with laugh.
Jokes aside, Barnett said she has no plans of withdrawing from the race, but her path to the chief’s post comes as voters in Sorrento remain set to consider whether to abolish the Police Department and Barnett’s new position as chief in the Nov. 4 election.
Barnett said Tuesday she will keep politicking voters to keep the department and not hand over police protection to the parish Sheriff’s Office.
“We need our own police department. We need our own chief that is familiar with everything, and they are going to be here,” Barnett said.
LeBlanc, a retired industrial plant security officer, said he had been developing plans to reorganize the department and restore its insurance coverage.
“I don’t think I could dedicate the full time to it that I thought I was going to be able to do,” LeBlanc said.
But he said he will do whatever Barnett asks of him to help reorganize the department as long as his health will permit it. He said losing the department would be a step backward for Sorrento.
“The town needs to move forward. I think the Police Department can be reorganized and can be done professionally,” LeBlanc said.
Barnett said if voters do reject the department and chief’s position, she would have to give some thought to resigning, a move that would immediately abolish the chief’s post.
“I don’t like to say never because you never what’s going to happen,” Barnett said.
“It be kind of silly to collect the pay for three years to do nothing,” she added.
Pressure has been mounting on her and the other now former candidates for chief to show their plans as arguments also increase to do away with the department, which several council members view as an embarrassment and as financially unsupportable for the small Ascension Parish town. The council defunded the department this summer ahead of the abolition vote.
Barnett also has already come under attack by some of the town officials who support doing away with the chief and department and letting the Sheriff’s Office take over.
Sheriff Jeff Wiley, whose department is providing police protection on an interim basis, has offered to provide protection year-round for nearly $354,000 if voters abolish the department.
Councilman Don Schexnaydre and Mayor Mike Lambert said Barnett was part of the problem when she was clerk under Theriot.
“She worked for the Police Department for a number of years. She saw the problems, and she did nothing about it,” Lambert said.
Schexnaydre said he won’t vote to give Barnett “a dime” until she can show she can get liability insurance. The department lost its coverage from Risk Management Inc. in November amid mounting lawsuits and the department’s failure to follow underwriting guidelines. The insurance issue, combined with Theriot’s legal troubles, unraveled the already troubled department.
“We can’t get insurance,” said Schexnaydre, who has tried to find new coverage for the department without success.
Town officials and legislators who enacted the law in the spring to put the abolition question on the ballot have said that if a chief were elected to fill Theriot’s term and voters also voted to abolish the department and chief’s position, the chief would remain in place until Theriot’s term expires in mid-2017.
Lambert said he will want a legal opinion about whether the town would have to pay for Barnett, who would be filling an elected position called for by state law.
“I have had conflicting interpretations about whether we are to pay or not to pay for her, but I can assure you there is probably a majority on the council that will not fund the Police Department under any circumstances,” Lambert said.
Casper has said the Secretary of State would likely seek a legal opinion also if voters abolish the department and chief’s position next month.
Those opinions may be yet future twists in the story of Sorrento and its Police Department.
“Nothing surprises me no more in Sorrento,” Lambert said. “Nothing.”
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.