SORRENTO — Town Council members erred when they voted Tuesday to oust Police Chief Fern Barnett from her part-time position as the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission secretary, the mayor said Thursday.
Mayor Mike Lambert said the council made the mistake when members Patti Poche, Marvin Martin, Wanda Bourgeois and Don Schexnaydre voted to remove Barnett as commission secretary.
According to commission bylaws, only the five-member commission can appoint or remove the secretary from office.
The state Attorney General’s Office also has said Barnett can be both police chief and commission secretary and not violate the state’s dual office-holding law.
“It’s pretty clear,” Lambert said. “We made a mistake, and, at some point, we’re going to rectify the mistake.”
Lambert said he had “no plan of action” yet and would have to meet with Town Attorney Matthew Percy.
He said the council’s action was not taken in retribution over the battle the town has with Barnett, who became chief of police just weeks before the town voted to abolish the position and the Police Department.
Town officials want Barnett to step down, which she has not done, and the council has refused to pay her monthly salary as police chief or for her expenses as commission secretary.
“For me, it’s not retribution,” Lambert said. “I just think it’s time to clean it up.”
Schexnaydre said Thursday that his vote to oust Barnett as commission secretary was not about retribution, either.
Instead, Schexnaydre said he just wants “to stop this foolishness” of having the town billed each month for expenses the town never agreed to pay.
Having Barnett argue with town officials over payment is a continued embarrassment that Schexnaydre said he hopes to stop by having her removed from the Planning and Zoning Commission.
However, Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Jay Landry said Thursday he would not make a motion to remove Barnett as secretary.
“I have nothing but praise for Mrs. Fern and the job she has done for the zoning commission,” said Landry, who added the commission took no action against her at its Wednesday meeting.
Barnett did not attend the meeting but said Thursday she will not perform any more commission work after the council tried to oust her.
Barnett, who served as commission secretary for 18 years, retired as town clerk June 1 and has been working from home as commission secretary since then.
“I did the work,” Barnett said. “I just don’t want to be called a liar and a thief.”
Without liability insurance or a police force to command and, having never publicly shared a future plan for the Police Department, Barnett has been accused of sitting in the police chief’s office and doing nothing. Town officials want her to resign so the chief’s position will go away immediately. The Police Department was closed during the summer when the council voted to stop funding it.
Barnett has retained a lawyer to force the town to pay her $2,800 monthly police chief salary retroactive to October. State law prevents the Town Council from decreasing an elected official’s compensation during his or her term, but the Town Council has refused to pay her.
The pay dispute is part of a broader disagreement between Barnett and other town officials since Sorrento voters decided overwhelmingly Nov. 4 to do away with the chief’s position and the Police Department.
Barnett is filling the remaining term of ousted Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr. and legally can hold that job and be paid for it at the same rate he was paid until his term expires June 30, 2017. The Nov. 4 ballot measure ending the chief’s post will not take effect until then, unless Barnett resigns.
Barnett, who declined to say Thursday whether she will resign as chief, has faced heavy criticism from Lambert, the majority of the council members and even Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley for continuing to serve as police chief in spite of the Nov. 4 vote.
In late August, Barnett filed a complaint with the state Department of Justice, alleging the town had violated the Louisiana Wage Payment Act by refusing to pay her for 10 hours of expenses from June to October for her commission work.
Barnett has received $15 payments from the town for attending each commission meeting, town officials and Barnett have said.
Before her June 1 retirement, Barnett did Planning and Zoning work at the Town Hall and did not charge for anything done after hours, her complaint said.
The town’s Sept. 23 response to the state Department of Justice said a town resolution requires it to pay Barnett only $15 for each of the commission meetings she attends.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Percy, the town’s attorney, said he has not heard back from the state Justice Department with further directions on the matter.
Barnett said that during her employment, she always completed her work, plus more work that wasn’t hers, including cleaning Town Hall.
“I’ve always done anything and everything around here, even when I was a clerk,” Barnett said.
Theriot, the former police chief, 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.