SORRENTO — Voters will decide the future of the town Police Department in a special election Nov. 4 called Tuesday by the Town Council.
The council, in a 4-1 vote, agreed to ask voters to decide whether to abolish the department, now made up of just Assistant Police Chief Ricky Smith, and whether to eliminate the department’s elected position of police chief.
“Come November, we’ll let the people decide what they want,” Mayor Mike Lambert said.
In another move hindering the already flailing department, the Town Council also drastically cut the amount of funding the Police Department is to receive for the 2014-15 fiscal year.
The budget amendment now funds the Police Department only through July 31 and eliminates Smith’s salary.
The amendment moves $132,000 from the Police Department’s $367,350 budget to pay for Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office protection from July 1 to Nov. 30.
The amendment also moves the police chief’s salary to drainage funds for five months and removes line items for a part-time clerk and police officer salaries.
Councilman Randy Anny cast the lone vote against both measures Tuesday, stressing to other council members that under the Lawrason Act, the state law governing the town of Sorrento, an employee who is fired or laid off should receive written notice two weeks prior to his dismissal.
Smith said he had not received any written notice of his dismissal.
Councilman Don Schexnaydre said Smith is not being terminated; he is just not going to be paid after July 31.
Anny also asked Smith if the department would have enough funds to handle evidence and ensure the chain of custody is secure if the ordinance passed Tuesday.
Smith replied he would not have enough funds, adding the department housed a vehicle and narcotics as evidence.
But Council members Patti Poche, Marvin Martin, Wanda Bourgeois and Don Schexnaydre voted to approved both ordinances after listening to residents at two public hearings Tuesday.
Tim Hebert asked why town officials were wasting time and money asking residents to vote for something the town already has: a Police Department.
Hebert said that Lambert, as “administrator of the town,” should be able to determine what is best for the town.
Robert DeBate voiced another opinion.
“Why would we want to resurrect a defunct department?” DeBate said after listing numerous incidents involving Sorrento police officers, including a former officer whose patrol car tracking device showed he exceeded 75 mph in the vehicle 720 times in a two-month period and another officer fired for using a stun gun on a community college student because the student asked him to.
Perhaps the most damage to the department occurred in February when Chief Earl Theriot Jr. resigned prior to pleading guilty to lying to an FBI agent.
The police chief’s position been vacant since then.
In November, the Police Department lost its liability insurance for its officers and vehicles after its provider, Risk Management Inc., declined to continue providing coverage.
Risk Management officials have said the department failed to meet underwriting requirements but town officials have cited an excessive number of claims as the reason the insurance company ended its policies for the department.
Voters also will decide Nov. 4 whether to fill the remainder of Theriot’s term, which expires June 30, 2017, if any candidates qualify to run.
To date, no one has announced his candidacy to run for the position. The official qualifying period for the election is Aug. 20-22.
If the town votes this fall to keep the Police Department, Lambert said, the Town Council would address funding the department by amending the budget again.