SORRENTO — From a revolving door of mayors and council members who have not stayed in office for one reason or another, to police officers and a police chief who could not stay out of trouble, Sorrento has weathered its share of stormy times in recent years for a community of more than 1,500.
But a new Town Council and mayor took office in the summer of 2013 with a promise to turn things around, put an end to the Police Department and its elected chief of police and turn over law enforcement responsibility to the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Nearly a year-and-a-half later, with Earl Theriot Jr. no longer holding the title of police chief and the Police Department left uninsured and without funding from the town, voters will decide Nov. 4 whether to keep the elected chief’s position and the Police Department.
Mayor Mike Lambert said the election will also provide him a sense of how he has been doing after more than a year in office with lots of change and time spent trying to “keep this town afloat.”
“I think that this (election) is going to be my test of public opinion about how people feel about what I’m doing,” Lambert said.
Early voting begins Tuesday and ends Oct. 28. Residents will be asked in one ballot question whether to abolish the chief and the Police Department.
Hanging over this decision are former Police Chief Theriot’s conviction in February on a federal charge of lying to an FBI agent and his resignation.
Theriot was convicted of lying about “inappropriate sexual contact” with an intoxicated woman while the chief was on duty. The woman claims in a civil lawsuit that Theriot assaulted her in his office and forced her to perform oral sex, though Theriot claims the incident was consensual. No criminal charges have been filed in state court in the incident.
Even if voters do away with the chief and the department, their will may not lead to an immediate break from the past.
Because Theriot left office midway through his term, state law required that the unexpired term be filled in the Nov. 4 election. However, Fern Barnett, 71, a great-grandmother with no law enforcement experience but a long history as former town police clerk, won the seat Oct. 9 after two other candidates dropped out of the race.
Barnett was commissioned Oct. 10 and plans to be sworn in over the next few days.
If residents do vote down the department and chief, town officials have said they believe that Barnett could serve out the remainder of Theriot’s term, but she would not have a police department. His term ends June 30, 2017.
However, she said Monday in that case she would consider resigning, a move that would immediately abolish the chief’s position.
Lambert, a former parish sheriff’s deputy, and several on the Town Council have been outspoken advocates for turning police protection over to the Sheriff’s Office.
Lambert and town council members, who have threatened not to pay Barnett or her department if she can’t get insurance — and they claim she won’t be able to — have been pressing Barnett to lay out her plans.
Barnett, who has been on the job since Thursday, said that she is doing some preliminary planning and is trying to meet with the department’s former insurer, Risk Management Inc. She said she will not be revealing much, though, until she has a clearer idea about what voters want and whether she can get the insurance for the Police Department.
Barnett said she has also asked the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office for an opinion on whether the council can refuse to fund her department if voters decide to keep it.
“You can only do some basic stuff and that is it until all these other things are answered,” Barnett said.
Laura Gerdes Colligan, spokeswoman for the attorney general, said the office received the request Monday but the time line for an opinion depends on the complexity of the request.
Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley, who has been providing protection on an interim basis since the department lost liability insurance Nov. 19, has offered the town year-round protection for about $354,000 if voters abolish the Police Department.
Wiley said the proposed agreement, which has a built-in annual increase of up to 5 percent, would last until the end of his term in office. Future agreements would likely continue on a year-to-year basis, he said.
The Sheriff’s Office has provided a similar deal to the much larger city of Donaldsonville since the mid-1980s.
The sheriff’s deal would provide four deputies to the town, one for each shift, plus offer the backup of the entire Sheriff’s Office if the need should arise. Depending on what the new chief wants, Wiley could end up placing those deputies in the Police Department’s space at Town Hall, he said.
Based on recent interviews in Sorrento, Lambert and town officials appear to have some backing. Some residents said they see sheriff’s deputies on the streets and the proposed switch as a step toward the future.
“Ascension needs to be out here, doing what they’ve been doing,” said Bryant Bennett, 30, of Sorrento, on Saturday, of the Sheriff’s Office patrolling the streets.
“All Sorrento cops used to do was harass people. That’s it.”
Bennett, who lives a few houses from the department, recalled receiving a ticket for being outside too late when he walked from his driveway one night while on his cellphone.
But there is also a sentiment among residents that the town has already lost enough in the recent past, including the Boucherie Festival and the Fire Department Trail Ride, and that losing the Police Department and chief could be too much. A small town has policing needs — noise complaints and neighbor disputes — that only a small-town police department can serve, these residents said. A few claim the vote against the department would be a step toward ending the town itself.
“I would say they wanted to shut down the police, and the next agenda is to shut down the town,” Tim Hebert, 47, of Sorrento, who wants to keep the department, said of town leaders.
Another man, Kevin Lambert, who lives along Main Street next to his parents, said he doesn’t think the Sheriff’s Office is doing a good enough job handling smaller complaints.
He claimed a responding deputy recently did not stop a neighbor from continuing to play music loudly one night, instead telling Lambert his and his father’s homes needed insulation in their walls.
“It’s like, what’s that got to do with me,” Lambert said.
Mayor Mike Lambert, who is not related to Kevin Lambert, disputed that the election is a step toward ending the town, rather it is intended to make it more viable by improving its finances and providing competent law enforcement.
“The city of Donaldsonville didn’t lose its identity,” Mike Lambert said of that city’s switch to the Sheriff’s Office.
Wiley said his office is responding to 100 percent of the calls in Sorrento and welcomed anyone with complaints to call him or his supervisors. But Wiley said he has tried to stay out of the political debate in Sorrento and only offer his help.
“This is really a rich democratic process. It’s as pure as it gets. (Sorrento voters) can decide what they want. If they want us, we’re available, and we’ve been doing it for seven months without front-page cover stories, without controversy, without corrupt cops, without all that,” Wiley said.
“If they don’t want that,” Wiley added, “I will help in all ways possible to rebuild the department. It’s totally up to the city fathers and the constituents.”
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.